The somewhat secret space vehicle of the U.S. Air Force, the X-37B will be landing in the next few days. Though reported to have been landing last week, something not reported has kept the vehicle in space until now, with the statement of this week’s landing now coming from the Air Force in a statement giving the weather conditions as the guiding factor for the exact time.
There is much speculation of the reasons for the vehicle’s existence, since it is so much smaller than the shuttle, and may not be fit for many of the jobs the shuttle has been tasked for by NASA.
An article at TGDaily gives some more information from the Air Force statement -
“Space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the Air Force’s first X-37B, called the Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1),” says the Air Force in a statement.
“While the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations, it is expected to occur between Friday, December 3, and Monday, December 6, 2010.”
Amateur astronomers have had a high old time tracking the movements of the elusive craft. At one point it seemed to disappear, until a South African skywatcher spotted it in a new orbit five days later.
The landing date was to be expected, given that the craft has been aloft since April and one of the few known facts about it is that it has a 270-day maximum flight time.
The 4.9 ton spacecraft looks rather like a miniature space shuttle. It measures a little under nine meters long and has a wingspan of 4.3 meters. It’s currently in orbit at around 180 miles high.
Its true purpose has been the cause of much debate. The military says the mission was intended to test guidance, navigation and control systems for autonomous orbital flight. Inevitably, though, there has been speculation that it could be used for other, more aggressive purposes.
Another X-37B is currently under construction and is expected to launch next spring.
This makes a dream of many, an unmanned space launcher, reusable over time, almost a reality – all it will take now is a safe return to Earth. The word that another X-37B is under construction is a good sign that the U.S. will not be farming out all of its space missions to the ESA or Russian space agencies.
In another article, a mention of the X-34, a predecessor was given, and a picture next to the X-37B. One wonders what may become of that vehicle, as it was on a runway near the current X-37B, and not looking as though it was on the trip to the boneyard or to be mothballed any time soon.
The reasons for the second X-37B and the proximity of the X-34 makes for a lot of speculation as to what the Air Force may be needing put into orbit, as the payloads of the Air Force tend to be sporadic, and far between each other.