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Secretive Military X-37B Spaceplane Headed Back to Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jun-2012
Updated: 01-Jun-2012 08:02 PM

The Air Force's X-37B spaceplane is headed back to Earth in the next few days or weeks after more than a year in orbit.   What X-37B has been doing is unknown -- except in classified circles.

The Air Force's 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base revealed on May 30 that it is preparing for X-37B's landing in the early-to-mid June timeframe.  The exact date will "depend on technical and weather considerations," it said.

The Boeing-built winged spacecraft is formally called X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).  OTV-1 was launched in 2010 and landed after 224 days.   This vehicle, OTV-2, was launched by an Atlas V rocket on March 5, 2011 for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.  Its mission, like that of OTV-1, is shrouded in secrecy.  It passed the one-year milestone more than two months ago. 

Photo Credit:  Boeing (via Spaceflightnow.com   http://www.spaceflightnow.com/news/n1012/12x37gallery/)

The Department of Defense (DOD) inherited the automated, reusable, winged spaceplane design from NASA in 2004.  NASA originally designed X-37 as a test vehicle intended to lead to an Orbital Space Plane (OSP).   A prime goal of the OSP program was to build a "crew return vehicle" for the International Space Station (ISS).   Launched to the ISS atop an Atlas V rocket, OSP would have remained attached to ISS and used as a lifeboat in an emergency.  Eventually it would have evolved into a taxi to take crews to and from the ISS.  NASA canceled its X-37 program in 2004 after President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration with a focus on returning astronauts to the Moon instead of long-term utilization of the ISS.  NASA pays Russia to provide ISS crew return services using Russia's Soyuz spacecraft.

X-37 found new life after being transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  It successfully tested an Approach and Landing Test Vehicle version and transferred the program to the Air Force in 2006. 

The classified nature of the OTV-1 and OTV-2 missions lends an air of mystery to these flights and prompts much speculation on the utility of such a vehicle, including whether it has a weapons capability though experts generally dismiss that notion.

 


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