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X-37B Passes One Year Milestone, Still In Orbit

March 9, 2012

The US Air Force´s X-37B spacecraft, an experimental miniature space shuttle launched last March, has just passed the one year mark in space, with no signs of returning to Earth anytime soon.

The spacecraft, designed to spend up to nine months in Earth´s orbit, was launched March 5, 2011. X-37B, known as Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV) — the military´s follow up to the X-37 –  has been in orbit one year and two days, and is on a purely scientific endeavor, according to the Air Force.

But analysts say the spacecraft is capable of so much more, and some believe the mini-shuttle is being used as a spy tool, or to tamper with enemy satellites. The truth of the matter is, the Air Force is keeping a tight lid on what the space plane is actually doing up there.

The 30-foot unmanned spacecraft is on a follow-up mission to the successful X-37 OTV1, which spent 244 days in space after its launch in April 2010.

“We are very pleased with the results of ongoing X-37B experiments,” Tom McIntyre, with the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, told Discovery News in an emailed statement. “The X-37B program is setting the standard for a reusable space plane and, on this one-year orbital milestone, has returned great value on the experimental investment.”

The spacecraft reached its first milestone in December, when it successfully reached its intended ninth month in space. However, the Air Force made no attempts to bring it back home then.

“It´s still up there,” Major Tracy Bunko, a spokesperson for the Secretary of the Air Force, told MSNBC in December. “On-orbit experimentation is continuing.”

“Though we cannot predict when that will be complete, we are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process,” he added.

Amateur satellite hunters last spotted the X-37B on March 4 as it passed over roughly 210 miles above the planet in an orbit inclined 42.8 degrees relative to the equator. The spacecraft´s altitude has remained fairly consistent since launch, keeping between 204 and 212 miles above the Earth. The spaceship was flying over the same ground track every 31 orbits, which takes about two days.

“Ground tracks that repeat every two to four days are a common feature of U.S. imagery intelligence satellites,” satellite hunter Ted Molczan told Discovery News. “It gives you a fairly frequent revisit of the same targets from the same vantage point.”

While the Air Force is remaining secretive on the exact details of the current mission, only offering that it is investigating new technologies in space, there has been speculation that the billion-dollar craft could potentially haul small batches of supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). Boeing´s program manager, Art Grantz, proposed a scaled-up X-37C model that could also ferry astronauts to the station, filling the gap left by the retired NASA Space Shuttle fleet.

The X-37B could even function as an orbital bomber, said Marshall Institute analyst Eric Sterner. Provided they even exist, “you could stick munitions in there,” he added. Though, he admitted, such a scenario is unlikely.

One rumor has the Air Force extending the craft´s time in orbit to perform close passes of the newly launched Chinese space station Tiangong, which has been in orbit since September, but is yet to be manned.

X-37B´s path closely intersects with that of the Tiangong station, but some analysts point out that the two spacecraft would pass each other at thousand of meters per second, making useful surveillance impossible.

“If the US really wanted to observe Tiangong, it has enough assets to do that without using X-37B,” Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation told BBC News.

While the impressive endurance the X-37B has shown will clearly boost the Air Force´s credentials in US orbital capabilities, it comes at a time when the Obama administration is cutting the budget on satellites and rockets, and has entirely eliminated the office that oversaw the X-37´s development. Furthermore, Boeing is planning to shut down its Building 31 facility where the X-37s were assembled.

Some insider analysts, though, predict the spacecraft will move into a new line of funding, preserving its future as the Air Force continues to demonstrate its expertise in space endeavors. “We should not be surprised if the Air Force is pushing the envelope,” Weeden told Wired.com.

The X-37 started off as a NASA project, but was taken over by the Defense Department in 2004, and eventually becoming the Air Force´s responsibility in late 2006. The inaugural X-37 mission demonstrated that the OTVs could operate in space successfully and also return to Earth successfully, making them a reusable commodity.

Image Caption: In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline in June 2009 at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

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Source: RedOrbit Staff & Wire Reports