December 1, 2010

Unmanned Military Shuttle Scheduled To Land Friday

A miniature, unmanned space shuttle could return to Earth as soon as Friday after completing a nine-month classified mission for the Air Force, military officials announced on Tuesday.

The space plane, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Los Angeles sometime between Friday and Monday, Air Force officials said in a statement. The exact time of touchdown will depend on weather conditions and technical factors, they noted.

Preparations for the landing began on Tuesday, according to Air Force Space Command.

The X-37B, which was built by Boeing, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 22. The vehicle resembles a space shuttle orbiter in terms of shape and payload bay, but is far smaller and can stay in space for far longer periods of time.

The Orbital Test Vehicle is less than one-fourth of the shuttle's size (29 feet to 122 feet) and has a just 15-foot wingspan, compared to 78 feet for the shuttle. Furthermore, while the shuttles can only stay in orbit for approximately two weeks, the X-37B can stay in space for months at a time, as illustrated by its ongoing mission.

According to Boeing's official website, the X-37B is "one of the world's newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Designed to operate in low-earth orbit, 110 to 500 miles above the Earth at a nominal speed of about 17,500 miles per hour, the vehicle is the first since the Space Shuttle with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis."

"The X-37B has the potential to bring to space the flexibility that unmanned systems provide warfighters and combatant commanders today," Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement shortly after the spacecraft's April launch. "With the ability to be launched into space and then land on its own, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is an example of the kind of innovation that Boeing has been doing for decades."


On the Net: