USAF’s X-37B closes out OTV-3 mission with successful Vandenberg landing
The United States Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane wrapped up a long-duration orbital mission – one lasting some 674 days today, Oct. 17. The unmanned mini space shuttle touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 9:24 a.m. PDT (1024 GMT). Built by Boeing, the spacecraft was launched on Dec. 11, 2012 on the third Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-3) mission. The exact parameters of the mission are unknown with the flight being carried out on behalf of the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
While the specifics of its orbital activities might be a mystery, it is largely believed that the X-37B serves as a test bed for space technologies. Much like its far larger cousin, NASA’s retired fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the X-37B is winged, has a payload bay – and relies on a distinctly separate launch system. In the case of the X-37B, that system is a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 rocket.
To date the two X-37Bs that the U.S. Air Force has have carried out three flights, each lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. The first OTV mission to be carried out, was launched on Apr. 22, 2010. OTV-1 lasted for some 224 days. The following mission, OTV-2, lifted off on March 5, 2011 and concluded some 468 days later on June 16, 2012.
“We congratulate the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on this third successful OTV mission,” said Boeing’s Director of Experimental Systems – Ken Torok. “With a program total of 1,367 days on orbit over three missions, these agile and powerful small space vehicles have completed more days on orbit than all 135 Space Shuttle missions combined, which total 1,334 days. The innovative X-37B combines the best of an aircraft and a spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle and continues to demonstrate that reusable space vehicles are affordable options that support vital missions.”
Boeing has entered into an agreement with NASA to utilize two of the now-empty Orbiter Processing Facilities – for the X-37Bs. This could serve to cut program costs, as it would mean that the drones could launch and land – from Florida’s Space Coast – and thus eliminating the cost of transporting them from California to Florida. If this effort continues as planned, it would mean that all three of the OPFs would be operated by Boeing. OPFs 1 and 2 would be used for X-37B, with OPF-3 being used for the company’s commercial space taxi, the CST-100.
Video courtesy of USAF 30th Space Wing
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.