OTV-2 Space Plane Rides Fiery Trail to Orbit

The X-37B, safe in its fairing is sent into orbit atop the ULA Atlas V rocket. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

CAPE CANAVERAL – Second time turned out to be the charm in the case of the U.S. Air Force’s Orbital Test Vehicle-2 (OTV-2). At 5:46 p.m. EDT, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket roared to life, propelling the tiny space plane to orbit from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 41.

“Launch is a very demanding business and having what appears to be a successful launch is always welcome news,” said Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space Programs Richard McKinney. “It is important to remember that this is an experimental vehicle; that this is just the second launch; and that we have just started what is a very systematic checkout of the system.”

The number two also highlighted that this was the second of the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B unmanned space planes that has successfully flown to orbit. Back on Apr. 22, 2010, the first of these spacecraft lifted off from the same launch pad as the OTV-2 lifted off from today. It conducted a nearly nine month mission before returning to Earth. By all accounts, excluding a blown landing gear, the mission was a complete success.

Whatever that mission was is unknown. The X-37B, much like its larger space shuttle cousin has a payload bay. However, the payload of both the OTV-1 and OTV-2 is classified. Although somewhat clandestine, the first OTV mission was observed by amateur astronomers who noted that the space plane changed its orbit on several occasion. The first OTV landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California this past December.

“The X-37B really is a remarkable scientific and aerospace achievement,” he said. “We’ll also be looking at the performance of its advanced thermal protection systems and tiles, solar power systems and environmental modeling – all important system capabilities for a space vehicle that we want to be able to bring back and then re-launch quickly.”

What the Air Force has said is that it believes multiple missions will be needed to verify the X-37B program’s test objectives. That said a third mission yet to be announced. Although the United States has been flying the manned space shuttles for 30 years, this is the first unmanned space plane that the U.S. has sent into orbit and returned to Earth.

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