One Up, One Down -- X-37B Lands at Vandenberg
While most of the space world's attention was focused on China and its successful launch of the Shenzhou-9 mission early this morning (Eastern Daylight Time), another interesting event was taking place at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. The Air Force's X-37B automated space plane returned home after 469 days in orbit.
The reusable space vehicle landed at 5:48 am Pacfic Daylight Time (8:48 am EDT). It was launched on March 5, 2011 atop an Atlas V rocket.
The X-37B's mission is highly classified. What it's been doing for the past 15 months is not known publicly. A press release from Vandenberg today says only that it "performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies."
At least two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) have been built. The first, OTV-1, flew a successful 224-day mission in 2010. The vehicle that landed today is OTV-2. The Air Force announced today that OTV-1 will be launched again "sometime in Fall 2012."
Photo of X-37B OTV-1. Photo Credit: Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1012/12x37gallery/)
The vehicle resembles a small space shuttle and the program was actually inherited by the Department of Defense from NASA. It originally was designed by NASA as a test vehicle as part of its Orbital Space Plane (OSP) program. OSP was going to be a crew return vehicle ("lifeboat") for the International Space Station, and eventually a two-way transportation system. NASA cancelled the program in 2004, however, after President George W. Bush announced plans to focus NASA's human spaceflight program on a return to the Moon instead of extended operations of the ISS. The X-37B does not carry people.
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