June 17, 2012
Top Secret USAF Space Plane Completes 15-Month Mission
After spending one year and three months orbiting the Earth, an unmanned Air Force space plane completed its top secret mission early Saturday morning, successfully touching down at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, the Associated Press (AP) and other media outlets have reported.
According to W.J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times, the autonomous X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in March 2011, touched down at 5:48am PDT.
The Boeing-built vehicle, which is similar in nature to a miniaturized space shuttle, was originally scheduled to return on November 30 of last year, before officials opted to extend the craft's classified mission.
"Although the X-37B program is 'classified,' some of the particulars are known," Hennigan said. "More than 10 years ago, it began as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. But when the government decided to retire the aging fleet of shuttles, the Pentagon took over the program and cloaked it in secrecy."
"The spacecraft is about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels. It is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days," he added.
It is the second such aircraft to land at Vandenberg. Its predecessor, which returned to the California base in 2010 following a seven month mission, is scheduled to re-launch sometime this fall, according to the AP. The X-37B conducted a series of in-orbit experiments, the exact nature of which remains unknown, Air Force officials told the wire service shortly after the Saturday morning touchdown.
"The vehicle was designed for a mission duration of about 270 days," Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager, said in a statement. "We knew from post-flight assessments from the first mission that OTV-1 could have stayed in orbit longer. So one of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration."
"With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development. The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs," he added. "The X-37B's advanced thermal protection and solar power systems, and environmental modeling and range safety technologies are just some of the technologies being tested. Each mission helps us continue to advance the state-of-the-art in these areas."