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March 04, 2011

X-37B Robotic Space Plane Scheduled for Launch on Friday

By Ed Silverstein, TMCnet Contributor

Most things about the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane are kept as a top secret. One thing that is known is that the robotic space plane is scheduled to launch Friday afternoon. It is the second mission in the program and the first launch for this plane.

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But, like with much of its first flight, what it actually does in space is a mystery.

The Air Force said the purpose of the flight includes building on a prior mission, and to “validate and replicate initial testing and finetune the technical parameters of the vehicle tests.”

According to the Air Force, the space plane is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday afternoon atop an Atlas 5 rocket, if the weather allows.

The Boeing (News - Alert)-built space plane will land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

This is the second X-37B space plane used by the Air Force. It is called the Orbital Test Vehicle 2, or OTV-2.

During the first mission, late last year, TMCnet reported that it went into space and landed safely at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

That plane, the X-37B, was appropriately named “Orbital Test Vehicle 1.” It was launched on April 22, 2010 from Cape Canaveral, Fla., according to the Air Force.

It conducted experiments for more than 220 days while in orbit in space, according to an Air Force announcement.

About the first flight, officials said it “performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

Among the categories of things that could have been tested in the mission are: advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, and lightweight electromechanical flight systems, says the Air Force.

The Air Force says that the X-37B is the “newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft.”

In addition, the Air Force has released several details about the plane. According to the Air Force website:

“Based on NASA's X-37 design, the unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway. The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA's Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis.”

The original X-37 program started in 1999 and continued until September 2004 when NASA transferred the innovative space program to DARPA, according to the Air Force.

For a live-streaming webcast of the launch, please visit http://www.ulalaunch.com/site/pages/Multimedia_Webcast.shtml or click here.


Ed Silverstein is a TMCnet contributor. To read more of his articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Tammy Wolf