US Military’s Mystery Plane and a Classified Mission

X-37B
The mysterious X-37B space plane of the US Air Force is quietly chalking up mileage in space more than two months after its latest launch into orbit. The robotic space plane soared into orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station last Dec 11. The mini-shuttle’s mission is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3) as it is the third classified mission under the Air Force’s X-37B program.

It is still unknown if how long OTV-3 will remain in Earth orbit. The mystery space plane mission is officially on Air Force space tracking books as USA-240. “The mission is ongoing,” Air Force Maj. Eric Badger, a spokesman for the X-37B program, told SPACE.com. “As with previous missions, the actual duration will depend on test objectives, on-orbit vehicle performance and conditions at the landing facility.”

The current flight underway has attained the major milestone of reusability. The same vehicle was flown on the maiden voyage in the 2010 X-37B program. The OTV-1 mission lasted nearly 225 days in orbit and then zoomed back to Earth on autopilot over the Pacific Ocean, gliding down onto a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The OTV-2 mission, which used a different X-37B vehicle, also made a Vandenberg touchdown on June 16 of last year after remaining in orbit for 469 days, more than doubling its sister ship’s stay. There’s a possibility that OTV-3 won’t be landing in Vandenberg. There have been discussions about bringing the space plane down at the space shuttle landing strip at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “The possibility of using the former shuttle infrastructure for future X-37B landing operations is still being investigated,” Badger said.

The X-37B looks like a miniature space shuttle with a length of 29 feet and width of 15 feet, and a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. Officials said that only two X-37B space planes have been constructed for the Air Force by Boeing Government Space Systems. Flights of the space plane are conducted under the auspices of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

According to an Air Force fact sheet, the Rapid Capabilities Office is working on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle “to demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force.”
Mission control is handled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron, 21st Space Wing, of the Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Little is known bout what OTV-3 is toting in its cargo bay, but amateur skywatchers offer some insight into the mission. “All does seem quiet,” said Ted Molczan of Toronto, a leader in an ever-vigilant, worldwide satellite sleuthing network. “OTV-3 remains in its initial orbit, maintaining altitude with periodic engine firings,” Molczan told SPACE.com. “Unlike the first two missions, its ground track does not closely repeat at the frequent intervals that would suggest an imaging reconnaissance mission.”

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Source: www.foxnews.com

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