Yesterday, the US Air Force’s unmanned X-37B reusable space plane made a flawless autonomous landing Vandenberg Air Force Base. It was the second such landing at the Vandenberg, which sits 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and its success bodes well for future missions.
The Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) was launched on an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 5, 2011. Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works, the 11,000-pound space plane is 9.5 feet tall, just over 29 feet long, and has a wingspan less than 15 feet wide. During atmospheric flight, it uses two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer. In orbit, solar panels unfurl to provide electrical power to the onboard batteries.
This is the second successful X-37B flight; on December 3, 2010, an identical unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth after seven months in orbit. This most recent mission was originally designed to last for nine months, but after determining that the vehicle was performing well the USAF decided in December to push the space plane’s capabilities. The mission was extended to last 469 days. During the flight, the military ran on orbit experiments.
But the space plane’s landing is the real success. “Team Vandenberg has put in over a year’s worth of hard work in preparation for this landing and [on June 16] we were able to see the fruits of our labor,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander. “I am so proud of our team for coming together to execute this landing operation safely and successfully.”
The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, its landing program performs risk reduction, experimentation, and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.
The return to Earth began when the stubby-winged X-37B fired its engine to fall out of orbit. It then pierced through the atmosphere and glided down the runway like an airplane. The entirely automated approach and landing guidance program worked flawlessly and space plane landed right on the runway’s center line at Vandenberg. With such precision in programming and the human element out of the equation, it’s nearly impossible for the X-37B to make a sloppy landing.
“With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, X-37B program manager. “The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We’re proud of the entire team’s successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion.”
We can expect a third X-37B to build on this success. The Air Force is preparing for another launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force station sometime this fall. This will be a re-flight of the first X-37B OTV that landed at Vandenberg last December.
The twin X-37B vehicles are part of a military program testing robotically controlled reusable spacecraft technologies. Though the Air Force emphasizes its goal of testing the space plane’s technological capabilities, there is classified payload on board. That little detail adds big speculation about the mission’s ultimate purpose.