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X-37B Robotic Space Plane Ends 469-day Mission

A Boeing-built X-37B has swooped down from space to an autopilot landing at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The June 16th runway touchdown of the winged robotic craft marked the record setting end of an impressive 469-day test mission. It was launched atop an Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on March 5, 2011.

There have been two flights of the innovative X-37B design – a vehicle that melds the best of aircraft and spacecraft prowess into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle. Each mission flown to date used a different, but similar vehicle.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) flight program is carried out by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. What the unpiloted space planes tote to and from space is classified.

The X-37B (OTV-2) landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. Pacific time today.

Extended mission

“With OTV-1, we proved that unmanned space vehicles can be sent into orbit and safely recovered,” said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Government Space Systems, the division that built the X-37B space planes.

The spaceplane’s first orbital mission took place from April 22, 2010 to December 3, 2010.

This latest space trek of OTV-2 far surpassed the flight time of the OTV-1 vehicle.

“With OTV-2, we tested the vehicle design even further by extending the 220-day mission duration of the first vehicle, and testing additional capabilities,” Rusnock added. “We look forward to the second launch of OTV-1 later this year and the opportunity to demonstrate that the X-37B is an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused.”

Landing on its own

OTV-1 was the United States’ first unpiloted vehicle to return from space and land on its own. Previously, the space shuttle was the only space vehicle capable of returning to Earth and being reused.

According to a Boeing statement, the X-37B program is demonstrating a reliable, reusable unmanned space test platform for the Air Force.

Program objectives for the X-37B include space experimentation, risk reduction, and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies that could become key enablers for future space missions.

By Leonard David

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