December 3, 2010

Air Force Spacecraft Returns From 7-Month Mission

The unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle has successfully landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, marking the end of the miniature space shuttle's secret seven month mission for the US Air Force, various media outlets reported on Friday.

The landing occurred at the military facility located some 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles at 1:16 am PST, Vandenberg spokesman Jeremy Eggers told the Associated Press (AP). Eggers called the landing "very exciting" and added that the X-37B was expected to return to space in Spring 2011.

"We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission," program manager Lt. Col. Troy Giese said in a statement, according to the AP. "Today's landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office."

The X-37B, which was built by aerospace manufacturer Boeing's Phantom Works division, launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on April 22. It mission was classified, though the Air Force told BBC News Science Reporter Paul Rincon that part of the mission was simply to test the craft itself.

"According to amateur satellite watchers, who have been tracking the experimental vehicle since its launch, the craft changed its orbital path several times," Rincon noted in a Friday article. "Some of those skywatchers have also claimed that characteristics of the X-37B's orbit are shared with 'spy satellites' that carry out imaging reconnaissance."

The spacecraft is similar in design to NASA's venerable space shuttle, though the 29-foot craft is just one-fourth of the shuttle's size. It also has a smaller wingspan (15-feet versus 78-feet) and can stay in orbit for several months at a time, while the space shuttle can only remain in space for approximately two weeks.

On their official website, Boeing calls the X-37B "one of the world's newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft," adding that it is "designed to operate in low-earth orbit," can reach nominal speeds of "about 17,500 miles per hour" and is the first vehicle since the space shuttle "with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis."


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