Unmanned spacecraft returns to Earth

2010-12-04 18:18

California - The US Air Force's secrecy-shrouded X-37B unmanned spaceplane returned to Earth early on Friday after more than seven months in orbit on a classified mission, officials said.

The winged craft autonomously landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast 209km northwest of Los Angeles, base spokesperson Jeremy Eggers said.

"It's very exciting," Eggers said of the landing at 01:16 local time.

The X-37B was launched by an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on April 22, 2010, with a maximum mission duration of 270 days.

Also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, the Boeing-built spacecraft was originally a NASA project before being taken over by the military.

The Air Force has not said whether it carried anything in its cargo bay, but insists the primary purpose of the mission was to test the craft itself.

"We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission," program manager Lieutenant Colonel Troy Giese said in a statement.

"Today's landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office," Giese said.

The Air Force said it planned to launch a second X-37B, dubbed OTV-2, in spring 2011.

Officials have made public only a general description of the mission objectives: testing of guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous operation in orbit, re-entry and landing.

However, the ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about the craft have longed remained a mystery, though experts said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems.

The voyage culminated the project's long and expensive journey from NASA to the Pentagon's research and development arm and then on to the secretive Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the X-37 program, but the current total hasn't been released.

While the massive space shuttles have been likened to cargo-hauling trucks, the X-37B is more like a sports car, with the equivalent trunk capacity.

Built by Boeing Co's Phantom Works, the 5 000kg craft is 2.9 metres tall and just over 8.8 metres long, with a wingspan of less than 4.6 metres. It has two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabiliser.

Unlike the shuttle, it was designed for launch like a satellite, housed in a fairing atop the expendable Atlas V rocket, and capable of deploying solar panels to provide electrical power in orbit.

  • Maleo - 2010-12-04 20:06


  • axeinformation - 2010-12-05 09:55

    the question rather is, if they are capable of flying unmanned craft into space and back for 7months to test something that shouldn't take 7months, they are lying about the mission. How easy would it then be to control a plane to fly into the towers, then make up a story that it was hijacked by Muslims showing that they attacked your way of life and freedom, then you can declare war on those(selected) countries, get the military budget increased and voila! the rest is history - told by the "winning" team of course.

      andrewpottow - 2010-12-05 14:31

      Or you're just being paranoid and it really does take 6 months to test long term loiter ability and the long term effects of space dust, solar radiation and such on the craft? Or maybe they were testing scientific apparatus or other technology on a long term scale? Conspiracy theories are a dime a dozen, atleast research it properly to make it more than a remote possibility before you throw it out there only to be taken apart and shown to be quite paranoid as I have just done.

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