CAPE CANAVERAL — With its new homeport in renovated NASA space shuttle hangars off in the distance, the Air Force’s X-37 mini spaceplane will be launched from Cape Canaveral on May 6 for its fourth journey into orbit.
The Orbital Test Vehicle will be the primary payload aboard the next United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, the 54th Atlas 5 and ULA’s 96th mission overall. The launch has a codename AFSPC 5 for the Air Force Space Command flight No. 5.
Liftoff is targeted some time between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. EDT (1300-1700 GMT).
Stacking of the two-stage launcher began today inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Complex 41. The rocket will fly in its 501 configuration, the 6th flight of its type, that features a five-meter nose cone, no solid boosters and a single engine on the Centaur upper stage.
Majestically rising off the launch pad on 860,000 pounds of the thrust, the 196-foot-tall rocket will be powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 main engine for the first four-and-a-half minutes of flight.
The Centaur and its Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 then takes over for a 13-minute burn that places the X-37 mini shuttle into low-Earth orbit.
The Air Force won’t yet confirm which of the Boeing-built spaceplanes will be making the voyage. The first craft returned in October from a 675-day mission in space following a 224 day trek in 2010. OTV No. 2 spent 469 days in space in 2011-2012 on its only mission so far.
“The program selects the Orbital Test Vehicle for each activity based upon the experiment objectives,” said Capt. Chris Hoyler, an Air Force spokesperson.
“Each OTV mission builds upon previous on-orbit demonstrations and expands the test envelope of the vehicle. The test mission furthers the development of the concept of operations for reusable space vehicles.”
While the first three X-37B missions touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Air Force has acknowledged it was looking at the potential of landing a flight at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“Upon completion of the preparations at KSC, the program will have two landing options, one at KSC and one at Vandenberg Air Force Base,” Hoyler said.
“OTV is leveraging previous space shuttle investments and the Orbiter Processing Facilities (OPFs) to conduct recovery and refurbishment activities after landing.”
Boeing announced in January 2014 and NASA confirmed in October that it was turning over two of the OPF bays to the Air Force. The OPFs were where the NASA space shuttles underwent post-flight deservicing and were readied for the next mission.
“NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida has entered into an agreement with the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Program for use of the center’s Orbiter Processing Facility Bays 1 and 2 to process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for launch,” a NASA press release said.
“Investments will be made to convert the former space shuttle facility, OPF-1, to a facility that would enable the U.S. Air Force to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and re-launch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle,” Boeing said in its press release on Jan. 3, 2014.
KSC has a three-mile-long concrete landing strip where space shuttles landed for three decades. It is the same length as the Vandenberg runway that X-37B has used.
Built in 1975, KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility is a concrete strip 300 feet wide and 15,000 feet long with 1,000-foot overruns at each end. The runway is located about three miles northwest of the 525-foot tall Vehicle Assembly Building.
NASA’s space shuttles landed in Florida 78 times, 20 in darkness.
US Air Force X37-B to launch in May from Cape Canaveral
CAPE CANAVERAL --
A top secret government space plane is the next launch scheduled for United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket.
The X-37B spacecraft is set to launch on top of the rocket May 6, from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Not a lot is known about this unmanned vehicle for the U.S. Air Force but some space experts suspect it spies on behalf of the U.S. government.
Last year, operations of the X37-B were moved from California to Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
Atlas V to Launch AFSPC-5 for the U.S. Air Force
ULA Atlas V AFSPC-5 Mission ArtworkRocket/Payload: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 501 will launch the AFSPC-5 mission for the U.S. Air Force.
Date/Site/Launch Time: No earlier than May 20, 2015, from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Mission Description: This mission will be launched in support of the national defense.
Launch Notes: AFSPC-5 marks ULA’s 96th mission since the company was founded in 2006 and the fifth ULA launch of 2015. AFSPC-5 also will be the 54th Atlas V launch since the vehicle’s inaugural mission in 2002
Mysterious X-37B Military Space Plane to Fly Again Next Month
The United States Air Force's X-37B space plane will launch on its fourth mystery mission next month.
The unmanned X-37B space plane, which looks like a miniature version of NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter, is scheduled to blast off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 20.
"We are excited about our fourth X-37B mission," Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. "With the demonstrated success of the first three missions, we’re able to shift our focus from initial checkouts of the vehicle to testing of experimental payloads."
The X-37B's payloads and specific activities are classified, so it's unclear exactly what the spacecraft does while zipping around the Earth. But Air Force officials have revealed a few clues about the upcoming mission.
"The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (AFRCO) are investigating an experimental propulsion system on the X-37B on Mission 4," Capt. Chris Hoyler, an Air Force spokesman, told Space.com via email.
"AFRCO will also host a number of advance materials onboard the X-37B for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study the durability of various materials in the space environment," Hoyler added.
The Air Force owns two X-37B space planes, both of which were built by Boeing's Phantom Works division. The solar-powered spacecraft are about 29 feet long by 9.5 feet tall (8.8 by 2.9 meters), with a wingspan of 15 feet (4.6 m) and a payload bay the size of a pickup-truck bed. The X-37B launches vertically atop a rocket and lands horizontally on a runway, like the space shuttle did.
One of the two X-37B vehicles flew the program's first and third missions, which were known as OTV-1 and OTV-3, respectively. ("OTV" is short for "Orbital Test Vehicle.") The other spacecraft flew OTV-2. Air Force officials have not revealed which space plane will be going to orbit on the upcoming mission.
OTV-1 launched in April 2010 and landed in December of that year, staying in orbit for 225 days. OTV-2 blasted off in March 2011 and circled Earth for 469 days, coming down in June 2012. OTV-3 launched in December 2012 and stayed aloft for a record-breaking 675 days, finally landing in October 2014.
A recovery team processes the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane after the robotic spacecraft's successful landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Oct. 17, 2014. The touchdown marked the end of the X-37B’s third space mission.
If Air Force officials know how long OTV-4 is going to last, they're not saying.
"The X-37B is designed for an on-orbit duration of 270 days," Hoyler said. "Longer missions have been demonstrated. As with previous missions, the actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility."
The secrecy surrounding the X-37B and its payloads has fueled speculation in some quarters that the vehicle could be a space weapon of some sort. But Air Force officials have repeatedly refuted that notion.
"The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space, and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth," Air Force officials wrote in on online X-37B fact sheet. "Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control; thermal protection systems; avionics; high-temperature structures and seals; conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing."
X-37B launch date firms up as new details emerge about experiment
CAPE CANAVERAL — All systems are now “go” for launch of the Air Force’s X-37B mystery spaceplane on May 20 from Cape Canaveral aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.
Officials had delayed the X-37B launch by two weeks — from May 6 to no earlier than May 20 — due to an undisclosed payload issue. Officials on Monday removed their tentative caveat from the May 20 target and firmed it up.
“The ULA Atlas 5 launch of the AFSPC 5 mission has been confirmed on the Eastern Range for May 20, 2015. The U.S. Air Force has confirmed the spacecraft is on track to meet this launch date,” ULA said in a statement.
The Atlas 5-501 rocket is stacked inside the Vertical Integration Facility at the Cape’s Complex 41 awaiting arrival of the spaceplane for mating to the booster’s Centaur upper stage. The Centaur will execute a single firing during launch to insert the stubby-winged vehicle into orbit.
Meanwhile, Air Force officials have provided more detail on the propulsion experiment to be conducted on this X-37B mission. It is a Hall thruster electric propulsion test to enable in-space characterization of design modifications that are intended to improve performance to the units onboard Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communications spacecraft, officials said Monday.
Produced by Aerojet Rocktdyne, the AEHF satellites’ Hall thrusters are 4.5-kilowatt units that use electricity and xenon to produce thrust for maneuvering satellites in space. The novel electric propulsion system produces a whisper-like thrust by ionizing and accelerating xenon gas.
Unlike conventional chemical engines that deliver substantial boosts with each brief firing, the electric system needs the stamina to operate for exceptionally long periods of time to harness its 0.06-pound-thrust into orbit-changing power.
The divergent systems have their advantages and drawbacks. Although typical engines can maneuver satellites rapidly, they use large amounts of heavy fuel that in turn require a bigger, more expensive rocket to carry the spacecraft. Electric propulsion gives up timeliness for efficiency since its xenon fuel weighs a mere fraction of conventional hydrazine, but you must have patience to reap the rewards.
Each of the AEHF satellites, valued at over $1 billion, is a nuclear-survivable spacecraft that would ensure American leadership with communications in the most hellish scenarios of war imaginable. Three such satellites have been deployed to date, with three more planned.
The on-orbit test plans for the X-37B experiment are being developed by Air Force Research Laboratory and administered by the Rapid Capabilities Office, which runs the X-37B program.
“The experiment will include collection of telemetry from the Hall thruster operating in the space environment as well as measurement of the thrust imparted on the vehicle. The resulting data will be used to validate and improve Hall thruster and environmental modeling capabilities, which enhance the ability to extrapolate ground test results to actual on-orbit performance,” the Air Force said.
“Space is so vitally important to everything we do,” said Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello, AFRL commander.
“Secure comms, ISR, missile warning, weather prediction, precision navigation and timing all rely on it, and the domain is increasingly contested. A more efficient on-orbit thruster capability is huge. Less fuel burn lowers the cost to get up there, plus it enhances spacecraft operational flexibility, survivability and longevity.”
NASA Test Materials to Fly on Air Force Space Plane
Building on more than a decade of data from International Space Station (ISS) research, NASA is expanding its materials science research by flying an experiment on the U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane.
By flying the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) investigation on the X-37B, materials scientists have the opportunity to expose almost 100 different materials samples to the space environment for more than 200 days. METIS is building on data acquired during the Materials on International Space Station Experiment (MISSE), which flew more than 4,000 samples in space from 2001 to 2013.
“By exposing materials to space and returning the samples to Earth, we gain valuable data about how the materials hold up in the environment in which they will have to operate,” said Miria Finckenor, the co-investigator on the MISSE experiment and principal investigator for METIS at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “Spacecraft designers can use this information to choose the best material for specific applications, such as thermal protection or antennas or any other space hardware.”
The International Space Station is a unique orbiting laboratory used to conduct hundreds of investigations each year, with half of the research resources designated as a U.S. National Laboratory for investigations selected through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to provide direct benefits to people living on Earth. NASA research focuses on advancing scientific knowledge and demonstrating technologies to enable human exploration into deep space through investigations such as the current one-year mission with NASA astronaut Scott Kelly.
It is difficult to simulate all the aspects of the space environment, so testing materials for extended durations is particularly important. Programs across the aerospace industry, including NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, the James Webb Space Telescope, and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft have improved performance by selecting materials tested on the space station. All of the data from the MISSE investigations are available in the Materials and Processes Technical Information System, where the METIS data also will be made available.
Researchers are flying some materials as part of METIS that also were tested during MISSE. Testing the same types of materials again can help scientists verify results obtained on the orbital outpost. If researchers see different results between the same type of materials used on both METIS and MISSE, it would help scientists learn about the differences experienced in various orbital environments.
“When we flew newly developed static-dissipative coatings on MISSE-2, we did not know they would be used for both the Curiosity rover and the SpaceX Dragon,” said Finckenor. “Some program we don't know about now will be successful because engineers found the data they needed.”
The METIS experiment complements the station research, looking at a variety of materials of interest for use on spacecraft built by NASA, industry, and other government agencies. The materials flown in space are potential candidates to replace obsolescent materials with environmentally-friendly options.
Finckenor leads a diverse team of investigators from other NASA centers, aerospace companies, and universities. For both MISSE and METIS, the customers supply small quarter-size samples. METIS will fly a variety of materials including polymers, composites, and coatings. Finckenor prepares the samples for flight and helps with post-flight sample analysis.
“Data from the space station and METIS materials experiments will improve the lifetime and operations of future spacecraft needed for NASA’s journey to Mars,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, Marshall’s chief engineer.
Marshall provided the hardware for the experiment, while the Air Force is providing NASA the opportunity to fly the experiment. The flight provides researchers an opportunity to collect additional data in advance of the next MISSE experiment aboard the space station in a couple of years.
The Air Force operates the unpiloted, robotically controlled and reusable X-37B space plane to test technology during long-duration missions. It has completed three missions launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with the last mission ending in October 2014 after 674 days in orbit. It takes off vertically, lands horizontally, and continues to further industrial advancement for reusable space test vehicles.
LightSail finally met the vehicle responsible for its ride to orbit.
United Launch Alliance has released photos showing the U.S. Air Force's AFSPC-5 payload being stacked on top of an Atlas V 501 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 41. The payload fairing is emblazoned with the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a reusable space plane that takes off vertically and lands on a runway like the space shuttle.
LightSail is already encapsulated with other CubeSats inside the rocket stack, hitching a ride to orbit as part of the ULTRASat secondary payload. Launch is scheduled for May 20.
Quelle: The Planetary Society
Atlas 5 set to launch Wednesday with military payload
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral Wednesday, May 20 at 10:45 a.m. EDT. The rocket payload includes the Boeing X-37b space plane carrying U.S. Air Force mission AFSPC-5.
The space plane is an Orbital Test Vehicle operated by the U.S. Air Force for national defense. The vehicle resembles a mini space shuttle and is designed to land like an airplane.
This will be the 54th Atlas 5 mission since the inaugural mission in 2002, according to ULA.
The forecast issued by the launch weather team at Patrick Air Force Base is 40 percent for favorable launch conditions on Wednesday citing cloud cover and lightning as primary concerns. Bring an umbrella if you plan to watch outside there's a 40 percent change of rain in the morning.
Space enthusiast in the Central Florida area looking to watch the Atlas launch in Cape Canaveral can purchase tickets through the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and view the launch at the Kennedy Space Center‘s Apollo/Saturn V Center.
Check out the video above to see how the U.S. Air Force's payload is mated to the Atlas 5 booster.
Quelle: Orlando Sentinel
Update: 20.05.2015 / 10.10 MESZ
Atlas-V Ready to Launch AFSPC-5 Mission with X-37B Spaceplane and Lightsail Wednesday
Update: 16.30 MESZ -LIVE:
Hundreds of people packed the Canaveral National Seashore for Wednesday morning’s United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch. The rocket is carrying the X-37B Space Plane and Solar Sail.
Quelle: Florida Today
AF successfully launches the AFSPC-5 mission
LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- The Air Force and its mission partners successfully launched the AFSPC-5 mission aboard the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) procured United Launch Alliance Atlas V launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, May 20, at 11:05 a.m. EST. There were no issues reported with the launch.
"Today's successful launch is the direct result of dedicated government (and) contractor teamwork, and (the) focus on mission success," said Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the SMC commander. "This marks (Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle’s) 83rd successful launch and we will continue our unwavering focus on mission success."
This was the fourth time that the X-37B has flown on an Atlas V launch vehicle. The heart of the first stage is the common core booster which is about 106 feet in length and more than 12 feet in diameter. The common core booster can provide thrust up to 850,000 pounds at full throttle.
Air Force Space Command's Space and Missile Systems Center, located at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif., is the Air Force's center of acquisition excellence for acquiring and developing military space systems. Its portfolio includes the Global Positioning System, military satellite communications, defense meteorological satellites, space launch and range systems, satellite control networks, space based infrared systems and space situational awareness capabilities.
X-37B Umlaufbahn entdeckt
CAPE CANAVERAL — Hobbyists who keep track of the skies with remarkable precision have found the U.S. Air Force’s mini space shuttle in its no-longer-secret orbit around the Earth.
The X-37B craft, making the program’s fourth mission into space, was launched May 20 from Cape Canaveral atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
The ascent entered a news blackout about five minutes after liftoff, as the Centaur upper stage began its burn to put the spaceplane into low-Earth orbit.
It wasn’t until later that officials confirmed the launch had gone smoothly for the Orbital Test Vehicle mission No. 4. It is believed the Centaur deployed X-37B about 19 minutes into flight.
Observers this week spotted the craft flying overhead in a 194 by 202 mile orbit (312 X 325 km), tilted 38 degrees relative to the equator.
That perch is lower than previous X-37B missions and the inclination is lower, too.
“OTV 4 entered the lowest initial altitude of the program,” said Ted Molczan, a respected satellite observing hobbyist.
“The ground track nearly repeats every 2 days. Frequently repeating ground tracks have been a common feature of the program. This could be an indication of a surveillance mission, or it may offer some operational advantage I have yet to figure out.”
Although the Air Force revealed two experiments to be conducted on this fourth mission — an electric propulsion thruster test and materials exposure in the space environment — much was classified about the flight, including the orbit, mission duration and even which of the two X-37B spaceplanes is making the trip.
“The X-37B testbed platform is unique because we can tailor to specific user needs and return experiments back to post-flight inspection,” said Ken Torok, Boeing’s director of experimental systems.
“Reliability, reusability and responsiveness of the X-37B will fundamentally change how we perform future space missions.”
OTV 1 (first flight of Vehicle No. 1)
Launch: April 22, 2010
Landing: Dec. 3 2010
Duration: 224 days
OTV 2 (first flight of Vehicle No. 2)
Launch: March 5, 2011
Landing: June 16, 2012
Duration: 469 days
OTV 3 (second flight of Vehicle No. 1)
Launch: Dec. 11, 2012
Landing: Oct. 17, 2014
Duration: 675 days
“These missions have proven the reliability and flexibility of the system to support a variety of experiments,” Torok said.
Patching up X-37B
The fourth flight of the mysterious X-37B robot spaceplane is still hard to decipher. For the first time, the US Air Force did not release any photographs of the spaceplane before launch. This has caused this analyst (and other boffins) to speculate that something strange is being deliberately concealed from us.
In previous articles for SpaceDaily, this analyst suggested that the X-37B that's now in orbit has been radically modified. It could have a different heatshield. It could have additional instruments bolted to its exterior. It could have been modified so greatly that it's no longer appropriate to call it an X-37B!
We have plenty of questions but few answers. It also seems to be difficult to get the answers we seek. The USAF is keeping silent on these matters. There are no statements or leaks through other channels.
Amateur satellite trackers are watching X-37B in orbit, but they have not produced any information that would help us to know what has changed with the vehicle. It's in a lower orbit than previous missions, but that doesn't tell us much.
This could have been done to expose the NASA materials samples on board to a tougher environment, where they will have better contact with the upper atmosphere.
Not to pick on the satellite tracking community. They're excellent people doing what they can with what they have, and we are lucky that these amateur vanguards are watching. But we're running out of leads. What else can we do?
This analyst recently turned his attention to the patches released for the latest mission, known as OTV-4. Most US spacecraft launches have commemorative patches, and X-37B is no exception. Previous patches have featured illustrations of the X-37B, consistent with the detailed photography that has also been released for previous launches. We have no photography for this mission but we can still see pictures on the patches. Again, we see the X-37B, looking essentially no different from it did in the past. But is this misleading?
Let's be fair to the patch designers. The patches are not schematic diagrams, and have never reproduced all the details on the X-37B. It's possible that any changes to the spacecraft are too small to even be documented on a simple graphic design. They would, however, show up on photography.
The vehicle shown on the patches could be fairly accurate, but it's also possible that it's not. If the USAF won't show us secret modifications in photographs, they would certainly not want us to know through other channels. This analyst doubts that anyone connected to the production of the patches knows what has happened to the real vehicle.
Are there any other clues to be deciphered? The hexagonal patch for this mission shows a small globe with the Americas facing outwards. There's a blue star covering the globe with a red star superimposed over it.
This could refer to the USA, the US Air Force, or something else that's indecipherable to outsiders. There's also a boxy building with two parabolic dishes on its roof. This could refer to tracking, communications, or a special experiment on board.
Again, we can speculate, but the graphics say nothing for certain. Other patches for classified programs are filled with "in jokes" that aren't truly understood by anyone outside the program, and that's the whole point of including them. Keeping secrets is more than a duty. It can be fun.
Thus, the patches seem to merely tease us rather than enlighten us. This analyst gives a hat tip to the custodians of this intriguing program. You're not only guarding your secrets. You're doing it with style!
US Military's secretive space plane marks 200 days on orbit
The US Air Force's super-secretive X-37B space plane has spent 200 days in orbit as it carries out a classified mission for the American military.
The unmanned X-37B launched on May 20 on the back of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The space plane is the fourth spacecraft of its kind for the US Air Force.
The mission, called Orbital Test Vehicle-4 (OTV-4), marks the second flight of the X-37B, built for the Air Force by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems.
Amateur satellite trackers have spotted the Air Force's secret mini space shuttle as it orbits around the Earth.
The reusable space plane looks like a miniature version of NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The X-37B is 29 feet long and 9.5 feet tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet. It has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.
While the overall duties of the space plane remain secretive, it was announced that it carries a NASA advanced materials experiment and an experimental propulsion system developed by the Air Force.
Mystery Mission: Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Nears 1 Year in Orbit
The first X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle waits in the encapsulation cell of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle on April 5, 2010, at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida. Half of the Atlas V 5-meter fairing is visible in the background.
Credit: U.S. Air Force
The U.S. military's uncrewed X-37B space plane is nearing one year in orbit on its latest secret mission.
The robotic space plane launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015, kicking off the X-37B program's fourth flight. This mission, dubbed OTV-4 (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4), remains a clandestine affair.
"I can confirm the fourth OTV mission is approaching one year on orbit," Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Annmarie Annicelli said in response to Space.com's inquiry about the X-37B's activities
The X-37B looks like a miniature adaptation of NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m). For comparison, the space shuttle was 122 feet (37 m) long, with a wingspan of 78 feet (24 m).
The X-37B spacecraft has a payload bay about the size of a pickup-truck bed. It has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
Two reusable vehicles are known to constitute the X-37B fleet. This current OTV-4 mission marks the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle, which Boeing built for the Air Force.
Boeing's involvement in the program dates back to 1999. The X-37B vehicle development falls under Boeing's Defense, Space and Security division in El Segundo, California, the firm's center for all space and experimental systems and government and commercial satellites.
Most of the X-37B's payloads and specific activities are classified, which has led to some speculation that the space plane could be a weapon of some sort. Air Force officials have always denied this claim, maintaining that they use the X-37B to explore reusable space vehicle technologies in support of long-term objectives, such as risk reduction and operations development. [The X-37B Military Space Plane Explained (Infographic)] The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defense's OTV initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the secretary of the Air Force.
Four space missions
To date, the program has chalked up an impressive flight record.
According to an Air Force fact sheet, starting with the program's first launch on April 22, 2010, the first three OTV missions have spent a total of 1,367 days in orbit, "successfully checking out the X-37B's reusable flight, re-entry and landing technologies."
All three missions ended successfully with a tarmac touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, gliding onto a landing strip on autopilot.
Arrows in its quiver
A few payloads on board the OTV-4 craft have been identified.
For example, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced that its XR-5A Hall Thruster had completed initial on-orbit validation testing on board the X-37B space plane. It is also known that the vehicle carries a NASA advanced materials investigation, as well as an experimental propulsion system developed by the Air Force.
"While no more specifics have been offered about the X-37B by the Air Force since it began flying the orbital technology test bed in 2010, the overall mission seems clear: Lengthy missions allow time for seeing what such a vehicle has to offer in terms of capabilities," Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, told Space.com. "The military likes to have lots of arrows in its quiver."
However, Mark Gubrud, a physicist and adjunct professor in the peace, war and defense curriculum at the University of North Carolina, offered a different take on the program.
"Now that the novelty has worn off, it might be time for the Air Force to look over whatever results they've been getting from its use, and assess whether that couldn't be accomplished at lower cost with conventional rockets, satellites, maneuvering satellites, recovery capsules, etc.," Gubrud said.
"If the Air Force won't do that, maybe the Office of the Secretary of Defense or Congress should," Gubrud told Space.com. "If you send something up and leave it there for years at a time, that's basically a satellite, and if X-37B has become a workhorse, the question is still whether it's cost-effective."
Landing: when and where?
As in the past, it's not known how many days the current OTV-4 mission will orbit the Earth. It's also unclear where OTV-4 will land.
Boeing Defense, Space and Security has been making progress on consolidating its space plane operations, including the possibility of using NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida as a landing site for the X-37B by mid- to late 2016. (KSC is right next door to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the space plane's launch site.)
Under the Boeing plan, a former KSC space shuttle facility known as Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1) was converted into a structure that will enable the Air Force "to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and relaunch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)," according to Boeing.
Work has been ongoing to get KSC ready as a landing site for the X-37B, but Vandenberg is still being maintained as a landing location, with Edwards Air Force Base in California serving as a backup site, Air Force officials have said.
One year in space: X-37B spaceplane celebrates anniversary without fanfare
CAPE CANAVERAL — Orbiting the world in seclusion for the past year, the Air Force’s mysterious X-37B spaceplane marks the anniversary of its launch today.
The stubby-winged craft was boosted into space by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket on May 20, 2015, departing Cape Canaveral for a 20-minute ride into a 200-mile-high orbit inclined 38 degrees.
Today, the maneuverable craft operates in a 220-mile orbit, a higher altitude it briefly held last fall and roughly the same perch occupied twice by the previous X-37B mission, according to satellite-tracking hobbyist Ted Molczan.
This X-37B carries at least two payloads, revealed by the military before the ship took off — an experimental electric propulsion thruster to be tested in orbit and a pallet to expose sample materials to the space environment.
Made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the enhanced five-kW Hall Thruster, called the XR-5A, is being tested aboard the spaceplane for the Air Force Research Laboratory and Space and Missile Systems Center.
Operation of the modified thruster — said to have improved performance and operating range — is being checked by measuring the thrust imparted on the vehicle before inclusion aboard the military’s future Advanced Extremely High Frequency ultra-secure communications satellites.
The electric propulsion system produces a whisper-like thrust by ionizing and accelerating xenon gas. The fuel economy is a distinct advantage of such systems over conventional chemical rockets, keeping the weight down and enabling launch aboard a smaller, cheaper rocket.
There’s also a NASA advanced materials investigation aboard the X-37B.
Known as the Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space, or METIS, the experiment is exposing nearly 100 different quarter-sized samples of polymers, composites and coatings to the harshness of space.
What else this craft is carrying, if anything, has not been divulged by Pentagon officials.
The Air Force had not publicly identified any payloads on the three earlier X-37B missions flown since 2010.
Also unknown is how long the reusable mini-shuttle plans to remain in space.
Flight No. 1
Launch: April 22, 2010
Landing: Dec. 3 2010
Duration: 224 days
Flight No. 2
Launch: March 5, 2011
Landing: June 16, 2012
Duration: 469 days
Flight No. 3
Launch: Dec. 11, 2012
Landing: Oct. 17, 2014
Duration: 675 days
One-quarter the size of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiters, the unmanned X-37B conducts its mission and then autonomously returns to Earth, braking from orbit, plunging through the atmosphere and gliding to a pinpoint touchdown on a conventional runway to be refurbished and reused.
X-37B features a pickup truck-size cargo bay, seven feet long and four feet wide.
The craft’s unique capability to drop from orbit and land on a runway allows technicians to get their hands on the hardware after it spent considerable time in space.
Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works division, the spaceplane is 29 feet long with a wing span of 15 feet, made of light-weight composite structures instead of aluminum and shielded with improved leading-edge ceramic insulation panels on its wings and tougher silica tiles affixed to its belly that are designed to be more durable than first-generation tiles used on the space shuttle.
The three earlier X-37B flights landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force and Boeing have worked to consolidate the spaceplane operations at the Kennedy Space Center, using former space shuttle hangars and practicing for eventual use of the Shuttle Landing Facility runway as end-of-mission homecomings.
Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Mystery Mission Wings by 500 Days in Orbit
he latest secretive mission of the United States Air Force's X-37B space plane has cruised beyond 500 days in Earth orbit since its launch last year.
The U.S. military launched the robotic X-37B space plane on May 20, 2015, marking the fourth flight for the Air Force program. A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lofted the spacecraft from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to kick off the OTV-4 mission (short for Orbital Test Vehicle-4).
Exactly what the winged space plane's duties are while it's in orbit continues to remain a tight-lipped affair. Similarly, how long the vehicle will remain in orbit has not been detailed.
he first OTV mission launched in April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission — which used a different vehicle than the first — began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit. The subsequent OTV-3 mission reused the X-37B that flew on the first mission, and chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit.
So far, the U.S. military has not stated where the OTV-4 mission's craft will ultimately land once it's current flight ends. In the past, all three X-37B flights ended at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, gliding to a runway landing on autopilot.
New landing site for X-37B?
Progress has been made, however, to consolidate its space plane operations, including use of NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida as a landing site for the X-37B. A former KSC space-shuttle facility known as Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1) was converted into a structure that will enable the Air Force "to efficiently land, recover, refurbish and relaunch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV)," according to Boeing representatives.
The X-37B vehicle development falls under the Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems in El Segundo, California, the firm's center for all space and experimental systems and government and commercial satellites.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is leading the Department of Defense's OTV initiative, by direction of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and the Secretary of the Air Force.
A fleet of two space planes
Only two reusable X-37B vehicles have been confirmed as constituting the fleet. This current OTV-4 trek is the second flight of the second X-37B vehicle built for the Air Force by Boeing.
The reusable X-37B military space plane looks like a miniature adaptation of NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).
The space drone has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. It has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.
A few payloads onboard the OTV-4 craft have been identified.
Aerojet Rocketdyne has announced that its XR-5A Hall Thruster had completed initial on-orbit validation testing onboard the X-37B space plane.
"It remains a very useful way to test out things," Winston Beauchamp, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for Space told Inside Outer Space during last month's American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) meeting in Long Beach, California.
Asked about any interest in increasing the X-37B fleet size, Beauchamp said that the number of vehicles currently in use is fine due to the pace of experiments it conducts.
Leonard David is author of "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet," to be published by National Geographic this October. The book is a companion to the National Geographic Channel six-part series coming in November. A longtime writer for Space.com, David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. Follow