Space

Top secret X-37B spaceplane breaks orbital endurance record

Top secret X-37B spaceplane br...
The OTV-3 mission set a new record for time spent in orbit by a reusable spacecraft (Image: Boeing)
The OTV-3 mission set a new record for time spent in orbit by a reusable spacecraft (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B landing at Vandenberg AFB (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B landing at Vandenberg AFB (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B was under automatic control (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B was under automatic control (Image: Boeing)
Technicians in hazmat suits inspecting the X-37B (Image: Boeing)
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Technicians in hazmat suits inspecting the X-37B (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B landing was monitored by the 30th Space Wing (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B landing was monitored by the 30th Space Wing (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B is launched from Cape Canaveral (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B is launched from Cape Canaveral (Image: Boeing)
The purpose of the OTV-3 mission is classified (Image: Boeing)
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The purpose of the OTV-3 mission is classified (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B approaching touchdown (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B approaching touchdown (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B is based on Space Shuttle technology (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B is based on Space Shuttle technology (Image: Boeing)
The OTV-3 mission set a new record for time spent in orbit by a reusable spacecraft (Image: Boeing)
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The OTV-3 mission set a new record for time spent in orbit by a reusable spacecraft (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B on the runway at Vandenberg AFB (Image: Boeing)
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The X-37B on the runway at Vandenberg AFB (Image: Boeing)

A secret mission came to a public end this morning as the US Air Force’s top secret X-37B spaceplane landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The unmanned reusable spacecraft touched down on the runway like a conventional aircraft this morning at 9:24 am EDT after a record-breaking 674 days in orbit. According to the Air Force, the automatic landing was monitored by the 30th Space Wing and occurred without incident.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 3 (OTV-3) launched on October 25, 2012 atop an Atlas/Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and has achieved the longest time in orbit by a reusable spacecraft; breaking the record set by OTV-2 in 2012, which launched on March 5, 2011 and returned to Earth on June 16, 2012. With Friday’s landing, the program has so far clocked up a total of 1,367 days in orbit.

The X-37B was under automatic control (Image: Boeing)
The X-37B was under automatic control (Image: Boeing)

The exact nature of the OTV-3 mission is still a closely guarded secret, though the Air Force says that the Boeing-built X-37B is designed for “risk reduction, experimentation, and concept of operations development.” Since the program began, some have speculated that the orbital missions have been for the purposes of technology or materials testing, reconnaissance, or space weapons testing, though the Air Force denies the latter.

"The landing of OTV-3 marks a hallmark event for the program" said the X-37B program manager, whose name was not revealed in the statement. "The mission is our longest to date and we're pleased with the incremental progress we've seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud."

According to the Air Force, OTV-4 is currently preparing for launch from Cape Canaveral some time next year.

Source: Vandenberg AFB

10 comments
lSd3d
This is the true future of space travel. Automated, accurate, and efficient; they will ferry us to neighboring planets. We will terraform Mars and create an entire new biome there. All this may seem brilliant and exciting, but it is mere baby steps compares to what we will achieve as a race of lucid sentients. As technology advances, we will be able to build craft which sail on Cosmic Currents. We will become interstellar travelers with robotic companions. We may very well make contact with another highly advanced race of beings who have been around longer and have far superior technology and knowledge. Let's hope we make a good first impression. There are sharks in the water on Earth. This universe has a deadly savage side to it that our generation has been spared of so far. We have to consider the risk of alerting a predatory race with no desire to share space with any other race. We could inadvertently doom our world to invasion by mistake. Will we be ready to defend ourselves, truly, from an ancient race? On the other side of the coin: How do we even begin to plan for the diplomatic interactions that would occur, if and when we happen across a peaceful race ? Why hasn't Hollywood made a movie about a positive and mutually beneficial situation involving Aliens? Is that paradigm just being omitted from the selection of options for UA to consider? Perhaps we will find less advanced civilizations. Can we consider ourselves responsible enough to resist the temptation to become gods? If we are going to ferry across the heavens and explore the unknown, we have an exorbitant amount of work to do on ourselves as humans and as a race. We can't just polish up a few outstanding individuals and send them out like door-to-door salespeople; a pretty face to represent a faulty end result. This has to be undertaken by every lucid individual human on the planet. We are currently chaotic and warlike. Our peoples are segregated by mistrust and disunity. We are far from ready for the steps we are already taking. Even so, it is admirable of those who push to unveil the secrets of existence beyond our realm. Your mind is a door that never ceases to open once you unlock it. Thanks for reading.
Gavin Roe
it is apparently without a crew as none were mentioned or shown so this would mean they are not wanted, not trusted or take up valuable space
Colin Foss
@Gavin Roe The X-37B is too small to carry a crew, and wasn't meant to. A scaled up version of the vehicle, the X-37C, would be able to carry crew and larger payloads, both pressurized and unpressurized. Launched on top of an Atlas Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle, the crew carrying version of the X-37C would carry a pressurized compartment in the payload bay of the spacecraft, equipped with a hatch to provide crew ingress and egress.
Brian M
The perfect vehicle for zapping space junk?
James Smith
@ ISd3d Exactly what is a "Cosmic Current?" Is that something known, tested and proven? Is is an invention of your or someone's mind? Your post s interesting but seems to include nothing but hopeful speculation and wishful thinking.
Dai Jones
So....please forgive me...but is this not just a toy shuttle? Whats the big deal?
Solomookie
@ Dai Jones Seriously? This thing is launched, orbits the earth for almost two years and then returns safely to earth to be used again, and you ask "what's the big deal"? Man.. you are hard to impress.
Pat Pending
@Brian M; There is of course the possibility that it is a test bed platform for a kinetic energy weapons system? Five kilos of depleted uranium encased in a ceramic sabot striking a target on earth at 20,000 MPH would yield 200,000,000 joules of energy, the power of a small nuke. Much like the Chelyabinsk meteor that hit Russia on 15 February 2013....
Cecil Hutchins
I wonder if the 2-year suspended animation experiment worked or not.
Don Duncan
I thought a dirigible would be used for this kind of mission. Unless the real mission is weapons development. A dirigible could stay up indefinitely, getting energy from PVs.