Capping a 15-month clandestine military mission circling the planet, the Pentagon’s miniature spaceplane, one quarter the size of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle, returned to Earth just after dawn Saturday, June 16, for a pinpoint touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Video: 30th Space Wing Public Affairs, VAFB.
The second copy of the Air Force’s X-37B robotic space plane landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California early Saturday morning, ending a record-breaking 469-day orbital mission that began atop an Atlas rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on March 5, 2011. The safe landing of Orbital Test Vehicle 2 after more than 15 months in space is an indisputable triumph for the US military and space industry. Much less certain is the X-37′s future. Budget cuts, labor woes and the looming specter of a Chinese rival could blunt the diminutive robo-shuttle’s orbital edge.
The Boeing-built X-37B, in development since the 1990s, was designed to operate nine months at a time between refueling and refurbishment. But with just two copies of the roughly billion-dollar space plane in the inventory, the Air Force wanted to get as much mileage as possible out of each. After OTV-1′s proof-of-concept flight from April to December 2010, OTV-2′s mission became an endurance test. “One of the goals of this mission was to see how much farther we could push the on-orbit duration,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the Air Force’s X-37B program manager.
The key to the X-37′s marathon flight: fuel and energy management. “It sips fuel like a Prius,” one space insider said of the mini-shuttle. Even so, Air Force controllers on the ground had to pay close attention to the X-37′s orbital profile and its use of engines, batteries and extendable solar panels.
Officially, the 29-foot-long X-37 is a research vehicle, meant to carry small experiments in its payload bay, which is roughly the size of a pickup truck bed. But the winged vehicle’s maneuverability and flexibility mean it’s capable of much more: spy missions, cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, even sneaking up on and tampering with enemy satellites. Some observers speculated that OTV-2 was monitoring China’s Tiangong space station, a notion that Secure World Foundation analyst Brian Weeden dismissed. “If the US really wanted to observe Tiangong, it has enough assets to do that without using X-37B.”
In any case, the X-37 partially fills a gap left by the retirement last summer of the much larger NASA Space Shuttle. “The X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” McIntyre said. Boeing has proposed to build a bigger X-37C version that could carry more experiments, more cargo — and even astronauts. …