Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Lands After 718 Days in Orbit

The Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane landed at the Kennedy Space Center’s orbiter runway on Sunday, May 7, after spending a record 718 days in orbit. This was the fourth flight of the uncrewed, autonomous military project, and was the first landing for an X-37B at KSC.

“The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” said Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager. “This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities. We are extremely proud of the dedication and hard work by the entire team.”

The mini space shuttle launched on May 20, 2015 on its somewhat clandestine mission. The launch was well publicized (and shown live on a webcast) but the landing came unannounced, except for the sonic boom that heralded its arrival, surprising those living around the space coast area.

The Air Force revealed before the launch that it would carry an experimental electric propulsion thruster to be tested in orbit and an investigation called Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS), which exposes sample materials to the space environment and builds on more than ten years of similar research on the International Space Station.

Beyond that, however, what the X-37B did in orbit is not known. The Air Force said in a news release is that mini shuttle is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.” Some experts has said they believe it has intelligence-gathering equipment.

Technicians work on the Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4, which landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida May 7, 2017. Credit: Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs.

Satellite-tracking enthusiasts were able to monitor the ship’s changing orbital height at various times throughout the mission.

The reusable space plane is designed to be launched like a satellite and land on a runway like an airplane and the NASA space shuttles. The 11,000 pound (4990 kg) OTV space plane was built by Boeing and is about a quarter the size of a NASA space shuttle. It was originally developed by NASA but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004.

Note: In the above video you’ll see a “big” NASA space shuttle sitting near the runway. It is the mockup of a space shuttle that used to be at the entrance of the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex. It is currently being restored.

All four OTV missions launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida and previous missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The first OTV mission launched on April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV spent 468 days on orbit, and the third mission was 674 days long.

The Air Force said they are preparing to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, later in 2017.

Sources: Air Force, Spaceflight Now, US Air Force Twitter.

Spying on Spy Satellites with Thierry Legault

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Shhhh! Don’t tell anyone, but we’ve got pictures….. ground-based pictures of secret spy satellites in Earth orbit. We’re not revealing our sources, but … oh wait, I guess we might as well tell you. Even if we didn’t reveal our source, you’d probably guess that astrophotographer extraordinaire Thierry Legault — who has been sharing his wonderfully detailed ground-based images of the space shuttle and International Space Station with Universe Today – has been working on capturing other satellites in orbit as well. Legault and his partner in imaging crime, Emmanuel Rietsch have tackled the difficult task of tracking down spy satellites and then tracking them with a telescope. For imaging the shuttle and ISS, they developed their own design of a motorized mount outfitted with a computer program so it can slowly and precisely rotate in order to track and follow an object in Earth orbit with a telescope and video camera. Now they are able to image even smaller objects.

Above are images they were able to capture of three different spy satellites, including the X-37B spaceplane. More images and videos are available at Legault’s website.

Thierry Legault with his customized satellite tracking system. Photo courtesy Thierry Legault.

Since October 2010, Legault has been using the autoguided mount, with the help of a DMK 31AF03 Firewire video camera mounted on the finder (FL 200 mm) and of the software Videos Sky, created by Rietsch, and then modified by Reitsch and Legault for fast tracking with the Takahashi EM400 mount.

The X-37B spaceplane now in orbit is the second of the two Orbital Test Vehicles launched by the US Air Force, launched on March 5, 2011. Reportedly, it will conduct experiments and tests for close to nine months and then autonomously de-orbit and land. Legault and Rietsch were able to image the spaceplane in late May of this year with fairly good results.

“I tried to get help to identify the real orientation of X-37B,” Legault told Universe Today via Skype today, “but on the contrary of the Keyhole and Lacrosse satellites, it’s not easy considering its complex shape with several wings.”

And the Air Force isn’t telling.

“Keyhole-class” (KH) reconnaissance satellites have been used for more than 30 years and are typically used to take overhead photos for military missions. Some of the keyhole satellites resemble the Hubble Space Telescope, but instead of looking out into space, it looks back at Earth. A similar type of spy satellites are the Lacrosse satellites, which are radar-imaging satellites.

But even with the tracking system, getting images of small satellites is not easy. “Despite this performing tracking system and hours of training on airplanes passing in the sky, keeping the space ship inside a sensor of a few millimeters at a focal length of 5000 mm and a speed over 1°/s needs a lot of concentration and training,” said Legault on his website.

The autoguiding and acquisition are done via a laptop with a double hard drive (one of which is a Solid State Drive – made with flash memory), enabling the precision of tracking of about one arc minute.

For security reasons, the sighting times for spy satellites are not published on an official website like NASA does for the shuttle and ISS. But with a bit of digging, Legault said others can try their luck at trying to spot these secret satellites.

“Orbital data are in the Calsky database,” Legault told UT, “therefore their passages are forecast as for the ISS. Generally, orbits are determined by amateurs, some of them are specialized in this activity, especially Kevin Fetter (and data are exchanged on the Seesat mailing list, owned by Ted Molczan).”

Legault is well-known for his images of the shuttle and ISS transiting the sun, but he said the accuracy of orbital data for the spy satellites is not sufficient for capturing a solar transit – and besides, these satellites are much smaller than the ISS and would appear as a small dark dot, at best.

“But for nighttime passages the data is sufficient,” Legault said. “Generally they are not visible with the naked eye or barely (except during flares), but they are easily visible with a finder.”

See more information, information and videos — including a view of what the tracker sees, on Legault’s website.

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

Amateur Astronomer Images X37-B Space Plane in Orbit

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Even since amateur astronomers picked up on the orbit of the Air Force’s secret X37-B space plane, others have been trying to capture images of the mini-space shuttle look-alike. So far, images have been just streaks or dots, but Universe Today reader Brent (a.k.a. HelloBozos) was actually able to image the plane in some detail. “This is the first I know of or have seen an actual photo taken of the X37-B Air Force Space Plane in some detail, while in orbit!” Brent said in an email. He tracked the X37-B manually with his telescope’s handcontroller, and he used a CanonT1i prime focus on a 2 inch diagonal. “This image was taken on 5-26-2010 at 9:48 pm EST, Orlando, Florida, USA. It crossed from the southwest to the northeast, crossing next to Mars and headed to the handle of the Big Dipper on a 71 degree pass.”

Below, Brent also captured a flare of the X37-B.

Flare from the X37-B spaceplane, captured by Brent.

Brent says on the colored photo, “you can make out the main wings, a rear canard, and what I dub the “Fly Swatter’ solar panel.”

Close up version of the image of the X37-B by Brent.

Brent said he tracked the X37-B from the information on HeavensAbove.com. Spaceweather.com also has tracking info, plus other images submitted by readers.

Thanks to Brent for sharing his images. Nice — and fast — shooting! And this isn’t the first time Brent was keeping his telescope’s eye out for the X37-B. He also shot the launch in good detail, even from 60 miles away. The volume is cranked on this one: