X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle
Over the years the X-37 had many sponsors, and beauty was in the eye of the beholder - it was many things to many people. Now the main purpose is to keep the Red Chinese bewildered, so they would have to respond to every potential mission it might perform. The Air Force reverted to Cold War-level secrecy even for the landing (only admitting its coming back, but nothing else). Making it highly secret makes it seem more important and helps keeps the CHICOMs focused on all the different threats that it might pose to them.
Two former shuttle hangars at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL house the US Air Force's X-37B program as of late 2014. The hangars house two reusable, unmanned space planes. The overall mission of the planes is unknown, but they could be used satellite deployment or repair missions.
The Air Force's unmanned, reusable space plane landed in the early morning of June 16 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., a successful conclusion to a record-setting test-flight mission that began 05 March 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, one of two such vehicles, spent 469 days in orbit to conduct on-orbit experiments, primarily checkout of the vehicle itself. The vehicle was designed for a mission duration of about 270 days. The 11,000-pound state-of-the-art vehicle is about a fourth the size of the shuttle. The vehicle was initially a NASA initiative, but was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2004. Air Force officials anticipate multiple missions will be required to satisfy the X-37B program test objectives. A third flight, using the same spacecraft that flew on the first mission in 2010, is planned for Fall 2012.
On March 5, 2011, the US Air Force launched the second X-37B from Cape Canaveral. The Orbital Test Vehicle-2 launch comes on the heels of the successful flight of OTV-1, which made an autonomous landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., Dec. 3 after 224 days in space. According to officials, post-flight analysis of OTV-1 revealed OTV-2 needed no significant changes. The second X-37B flight was aimed at helping Air Force scientists better evaluate and understand the vehicle's performance characteristics and expand upon the tests from OTV-1.
On 1 December 2010, the USAF announced that the first landing of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-1) at Vandenberg Air Force Base was to occur between Dec. 3 and Dec. 6, depending on technical and weather considerations. Members of the 30th Space Wing would monitor the de-orbit and landing of the Air Force's first X-37B. The X-37B landed at Vandenberg AFB at 1:16 AM PDT on 3 December 2010 after 225 days in space. It fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-earth orbit to perform an autonomous reentry before landing. OTV-1's de-orbit and landing marked the transition from the on-orbit demonstration phase to a refurbishment phase for the program.
The 45th Space Wing successfully launched a United Launch Alliance-built Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle from Space Launch Complex 41 at 7:52 p.m. (EDT) Thursday 22 April 2010. The Atlas V rocket carried the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), making its first space flight. As the first U.S. unmanned reentering space vehicle, the first of its kind, it has been remarkably easy to work with," said Lt. Col. Erik Bowman, 45th Launch Support Squadron Commander. "Processing and preparations went extremely smooth, and there were absolutely no delays in the vehicle processing. Overall there was great cooperation between the Air Force and industry teams of Boeing, ULA, and Astrotech, where we processed the spacecraft, to make sure everything went smoothly." The mission was also the first-ever launch of an Atlas V with the 501 configuration, requiring no solid rocket motors, and the first launch in some five years to involve a 5-meter class fairing, said Colonel Bowman. "This vehicle is light enough to launch without the solid rocket motors even with the larger fairing, making this a rather unique configuration."
The X-37B has a 270-day on-orbit capability and will be used to test technologies including advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics and high temperature structures and seals. Once the testing is complete, the OTV de-orbits and lands autonomously. While the X-37B is on orbit, it is like most satellites in that there are operators monitoring telemetry and sending commands to maintain the health of the spacecraft. Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it. The X-37B is scheduled to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is a non-operational system that will demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The spacecraft measures more than 29 feet long and nine-and-a-half feet tall. Its wingspan is 14 feet, 11 inches, and it will weigh about 11,000 pounds at launch. The objectives of the OTV program include space experimentation, risk reduction and a concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. 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.
Technologies to be tested include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, and lightweight electromechanical flight systems. In addition, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle will demonstrate autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.
The Nov. 25, 2002 NASA contract initiated a design for an additional X-37 long-duration orbital vehicle. All Boeing X-37 activities were structured to mature technologies needed for a future orbital space plane, and were designed to reduce risks for future reusable space transportation systems. The orbital version of the vehicle was being developed to test and validate technologies in the environment of space and will test vehicle system performance during orbital flight, reentry and landing. Technologies to be demonstrated include thermal protection systems; autonomous advanced guidance, navigation and control systems; high temperature structures; conformal reusable insulation; and high temperature seals.
The purpose of the X-37 Orbital Vehicle was to provide a versatile technology demonstrator platform on which to mature, through demonstration, critical technologies required by future space transportation systems. It would validate ascent, on-orbit, and re-entry environments incorporating a broad range of technologies including autonomous (no pilot) approach and landing, advanced guidance and navigation, advanced thermal protection systems and power distribution systems, and streamlined flight operations. The Project began the formulation phase in FY03. The planning was based on a Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in CY 2004, a Critical Design Review (CDR) in early 2005, and an orbital flight test in CY 2006, scheduled to be inserted into low Earth orbit by a Delta II booster in July 2006.
When fielded, the unpiloted and autonomously operated X-37B will be the only X-vehicle capable of conducting continuous on-orbit operations for up to 21 days. In addition, the vehicle will serve as a test bed for approximately 30 airframe, propulsion and operation technologies and gather test data in the Mach 25 (reentry) region of flight. Within the airframe itself, a variety of experiments and technologies would be tested, including a highly durable high-temperature thermal protection system and important new aerodynamic features. Its modular design also includes a seven-foot by four-foot bay for other experiments.
The Air Force is working on a space vehicle that will allow government scientists to transport advanced technology into orbit, test its capability there, then bring it home to see how it fared in the harsh environment of space. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is similar to the space shuttle, except it's about a fourth the size and unmanned. The OTV can return from space on its own. The OTV gets itself ready for re-entry, descends through the atmosphere, lines up on the runway, puts down its landing gear and it does it all on its own. The vehicle will land at either Vandenberg or Edwards Air Force bases in California.
The OTV will serve as a test platform for satellites and other space technologies. The vehicle allows satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be transported into the environment where they will be used -- space. Scientists will prepare components in the OTV's experiment bay, and then the craft is launched into space aboard an Atlas V launch vehicle. Once in space, the OTV begins testing its payload. The doors aboard the craft could simply open, exposing the experiment bay, or mission scientists could design more elaborate experiments. The OTV is a very flexible space test platform for any number of various experiments.
Being able to test parts in their actual operational environment will allow scientists to better judge how those parts will perform when deployed, so fewer redundancies may occur in future satellites. Rather than build unproven components into a high-cost satellite, with multiple layers of redundancy to make sure they work -- the Air Force can use the OTV to get those components into space to see how they respond to the environment, and make sure they work the way they were designed. "When the OTV returns to Earth, you can inspect the tested component and use that information to potentially alter your design.
The Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office was tasked with acquiring, testing and demonstrating the OTV. By 2006 much of the X-37B system vehicle was being built and would soon move into a testing phase. By late 2006 the Office was getting into the subsystem and systems-wide testing, which was planned to go on for about a year. The Air Force was projecting a first launch for the beginning of 2008.
Aviation Week reported (29 July 2008) that the "Atlas V Eastern Range launch slot that had originally been reserved for the Atlas V launch of NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite" will instead be used for "the first mission of the USAF/Boeing X-37B space maneuvering vehicle."
After a few flight tests in space, the OTV should be ready to begin experimentation in orbit. The first flight or two will be to check out the OTV itself to make sure it works the way it is designed to. After that, the Air Force would get into the realm of using it as a reusable space test platform -- putting space components into its experimental bay and taking them to space for testing.
Though the OTV is designed to provide a testing platform for new space technologies, it is made up of several advanced, untested technologies itself. There are a number of cutting-edge technologies on the OTV besides the auto de-orbit capability. It has new thermal protection tiles underneath and high-temperature components and seals throughout that need to be proven in orbit. There will be a great deal of extremely useful data coming from the OTV on its first flights. The plan is to share this data with other government agencies such as NASA.
By the end of 2009 the first flight was scheduled for launch 19 April 2010 on an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral, FL. First flight was originally scheduled for 2002. The Air Force's first X-37B, OTV-1, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., April 22, 2010 and performed a successful autonomous landing at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., Dec. 3, 2010, after approximately 91 million miles and 224 days, 8 hours and 24 minutes in orbit.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force's unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. (PDT) June 16. OTV-2, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 5, 2011, conducted on-orbit experiments for 469 days during its mission.
Since the third launch of the X-37B, Dec. 11, 2012, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., Vandenberg crews conducted extensive, periodic training in preparation for landing. The third X-37B mission concluded on 16 October 2014, with the spaceplane finally making her return back to Earth after nearly two years in space. The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 3 (OTV-3) safely landed on Runway 12 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 16:25 GMT.
The X37-B conducted its fourth mission in 2015 from Cape Canaveral. Weather permited, and the fourth mission was launched 20 May 2015 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Air Force said it had not decided how long the mission will last, but the X-37B is expected to remain in space for months.
NASA will use the flight to see how 100 or so "materials of interest" hold up in space’s harsh environment. The fourth mission will focus on how space stresses materials with temperature extremes, debris, micrometeoroids, direct sunlight, and atomic oxygen, and how it can erode many of the paints, polymers, and composites that NASA and private space companies use as protective coatings on their craft.
On 29 April 2015 Defense Industry Daily reported that the Air Force will test external link a plasma-based propulsion system on board a X-37B reusable space vehicle, in a joint effort between the The Air Force Research Laboratory, Space and Missile Systems Center, and Rapid Capabilities Office. A Hall thruster external link can provide greater fuel efficiency compared to conventional engines, with the new thruster a modified version of those equipping the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4), the Air Force's unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017. "Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers," said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, the 45th SW commander. "Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today's safe and successful landing of the X-37B." The OTV-4 conducted on-orbit experiments for 718 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent on-orbit for the OTV program to 2,085 days.
The spacecraft, the fifth of its kind, was initially rocketed into orbit on September 7, 2017, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. All previous OTV missions established new flight records, with the fourth spacecraft spending 718 days in orbit. The Air Force prepared to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, later in 2017. In just a few months it would head back out to orbit – except this time it was on the back of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The previous four X-37B launches were done on the back of a Lockheed Martin-Boeing Atlas V rocket. Both are launch rockets meant to take payloads into Earth's orbit, but the Falcon 9 is partially reusable whereas the Atlas V is not. The Falcon 9 costs about $62 million per launch, compared to the Atlas V's hefty $109 million, which may have influenced the decision.
"We are very excited for the next fifth X-37B mission," said Randy Walden said in a statement. Walden is the director of the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), and works on cutting-edge and classified projects as well as managing the X-37B missions. "We look forward to continued expansion of the vehicle's performance and are excited to continue hosting experimental payloads for the space community."
The fifth mission included the Air Force's experimental Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-11), which is used to "test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes in the long duration space environment" according to a USAF statement. Further details were not released to the public.
In August 2018, the space plane was spotted by Marco Langbroek, a Netherlands-based satellite tracker. Langbroek previously told Space.com that X-37B was flying at a very low altitude, somewhere between 193 and 202 miles up. The US Air Force's unmanned X-37B space plane passed its 400-day mark 20 October 2018, inching its way toward setting a new flight duration record for the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) mission.
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