Skywatchers say that a U.S. Air Force robotic space plane continues to maneuver in Earth orbit. Air officials comment that the reusable space drone has been carrying out tasks using a suite of classified sensors and may be nearing its mission’s end.
The spacecraft is the Air Force’s X-37B space plane, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle 1, which launched on its maiden flight on April 22 atop an Atlas 5 rocket.
The winged orbiter’s mission has been shrouded in secrecy, but Air Force officials have said it was built for 270-day spaceflights, suggesting that it may be in the flight homestretch and preparing to make an atmospheric re-entry and landing – all on autopilot. Official details regarding the space plane’s whereabouts, its classified payload and projected landing date are scarce — more mum than informative.
U.S. Air Force Major, Tracy Bunko, a spokeswoman for the mission at the Pentagon’s Air Force press desk, said “The first flight of the X-37B/OTV-1 is ongoing and continues to focus on checking out the on-orbit performance of the vehicle and proving the technologies required for long-duration, re-usable space vehicles with autonomous re-entry and landing capabilities.”
Bunko said that after the X-37B test objectives are satisfied, “we look forward to a successful re-entry and recovery at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.” She adds that no landing date has been scheduled.
Meanwhile, amateur skywatchers are keeping tabs – as best they can – regarding the orbital antics of the mystery space plane. As to what the overall mission is of the vehicle, they too can only guess.
“The shortest and best answer is that I don’t know,” said space sleuth and veteran skywatcher Ted Molczan, a leader in a network of heads-up amateurs around the world monitoring the actions of the X-37B spacecraft.
“It has made four significant maneuvers, including the latest one. All of its previous orbits resulted in ground tracks that nearly repeated after two, three, four or six days,” Molczan said. “Ground tracks that nearly repeat after two, three or four days have long been a feature of U.S. imaging reconnaissance satellites, which leads me to suspect that X-37B is carrying experimental sensors for that purpose.”
Molczan’s theory appears to be backed up by similar thoughts from other veteran space watchers.
“The mission is demonstrating one of the primary uses planned for the X-37B: flying attached sensor payloads so that their performance can be assessed before they are integrated with much more costly free-flying systems,” wrote veteran space reporter Craig Covault in the November issue of the magazine Aerospace America, published by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
The reusable X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1 was built by Boeing Phantom Works. It is about 9 meters long and has a wingspan of just over 4 meters across. It stands just over 3 meters tall and tips the scales at about 5,000 kg.
The X-37B program is under the banner of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office in Washington, D.C., with one job description dedicated to demonstrating a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force.
The space plane is being operated under the direction of Air Force Space Command’s 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, a space control unit located at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.
A second X-37B – called Orbital Test Vehicle 2 – is also in development, headed for a test mission slated for 2011.
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