May 31, 2012
Secret Air Force Spaceplane Coming Back To Earth In June
Lee Rannals for RedOrbit.com
The super-secret Air Force spaceplane that has been orbiting the Earth for over a year is coming in for a landing in June.The exact date on which the unmanned spaceplane enters back into the Earth's atmosphere is dependent on weather and other conditions, but the Air Force said on Wednesday it expects the landing to occur in early to mid-June.
"The men and women of Team Vandenberg are ready to execute safe landing operations anytime and at a moment's notice," Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander, said in a statement.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle took off from Earth in March 2011, and was the second spaceplane of its type to be launched.
The first X-37 spaceplane made an autonomous landing in 2010 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after a 270-day mission.
The 29-feet-long spaceplane is considered to be a mystery, while some astronomers speculated that it was used to spy on China's space station because it followed a similar orbit.
Amateur sky watchers say that the X-37B's path around the globe is nearly identical to China's Tiangong spacelab.
The spacelab was launched in September last year at an inclination of 42.78 degrees, while the X-37B sits at 42.79 degrees.
According to media reports back in January, the two vehicles will migrate toward or against each other about every 170 orbits.
However, despite some reports of the spacecraft being used as a spy plane, others say if the Pentagon wanted to spy on Tiangong-1, it wouldn't need a multi-million dollar spaceplane.
The spaceplane will use its propulsion system to brake from orbit, and head back down through the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean towards the Air Force base.
"Space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission, called OTV 2," Vandenberg's statement said.
The X-37B was originally launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral last year, carrying pickup truck-sized payload with it.
"Although I can't talk about mission specifics, suffice it to say this mission has been a spectacular success," General William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in a recent speech.
The spaceplane is set for another launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral later in October this year.