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X-37B Spaceplane Back to Orbit on Third Mission

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

December 11, 2012

X-37B Spaceplane Back to Orbit on Third Mission

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

The U.S Air Force's X-37 experimental unmanned spaceplane has been successfully launched into orbit today, December 11. It marks the third mission for the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program and the second flight of this particular spaceplane.

The OTV-3 mission started at 1:03 p.m. ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with the X-37B lofted into orbit by a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. Its payload, mission and flight duration are all classified and the Air Force is sticking to its talking points of space experimentation and reusable vehicles.

Commonly called a "mini-space shuttle" in reports, the Air Force has a pair of reusable X-37B vehicles. The X-37B is 29 feet long, boasting a wing span of 15 feet and a height of nearly 10 feet. It has a payload bay of seven feet by four feet and uses deployable gallium arsenide solar panels for power when in orbit. It autonomously re-enters and lands on a runway.

Speculation runs high as to what the X-37B can carry in its payload bay, with the most likely candidate being advanced sensors that will ultimately fly on dedicated military satellites or as hosted payloads on commercial satellites. The spacecraft could also act as an "unpredictable" spy satellite, able to change its orbit to deliver "surprise" imaging and sensor coverage over areas of interest rather than be locked to a predictable flight path. Others have suggested the vehicle could conduct on-orbit inspection of other satellites or even carry weapons.

The first X-37B mission was launched on April 2010 and lasted through December 10, 2010, ending its 224 day mission with a landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base. OTV-2 was launched on March 5, 2011 and clocked 496 days in space before returning to earth in June 2012, also landing at Vandenberg. The Air Force may land OTV-3 on the same NASA Kennedy Space Center runway used for returning Space Shuttle missions; it has discussed consolidating all X-37 operations in Florida, rather than launching in one location and landing in another.

Boeing (News - Alert) officials have floated the idea of using an X-37B for delivering cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and building a larger X-37C version to transport up to six astronauts and carry large pieces of cargo. The proposal hasn't gone anywhere, with NASA having its plate full with pursuing commercial cargo and crew delivery services while Boeing hasn't moved beyond Powerpoint in building a larger spaceplane.

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Edited by Allison Boccamazzo

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