Mysterious Air Force space plane lands after 15 months in orbit

An unmanned space plane built by Boeing, the second of its kind, returns to Earth after 463 days in orbit for a clandestine mission.

AP
Image from video made available by the Vandenberg Air Force Base shows the X-37B unmanned spacecraft landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base. The spacecraft, which was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in March 2011, conducted in-orbit experiments during the 15-month clandestine mission, officials said.

An unmanned Air Force space plane steered itself to a landing early Saturday at a California military base, capping a 15-month clandestine mission.

The spacecraft, which was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in March 2011, conducted in-orbit experiments during the mission, officials said. It was the second such autonomous landing at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles. In 2010, an identical unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth after seven months and 91 million miles in orbit.

The latest homecoming was set in motion when the stubby-winged robotic X-37B fired its engine to slip out of orbit, then pierced through the atmosphere and glided down the runway like an airplane.

"With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development," said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B's program manager. "The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We're proud of the entire team's successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion."

With the second X-37B on the ground, the Air Force planned to launch the first one again in the fall. An exact date has not been set.

The twin X-37B vehicles are part of a military program testing robotically controlled reusable spacecraft technologies. Though the Air Force has emphasized the goal is to test the space plane itself, there's a classified payload on board — a detail that has led to much speculation about the mission's ultimate purpose.

Some amateur trackers think the craft carried an experimental spy satellite sensor judging by its low orbit and inclination, suggesting reconnaissance or intelligence gathering rather than communications.

Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who runs Jonathan's Space Report, which tracks the world's space launches and satellites, said it's possible it was testing some form of new imaging.

The latest X-37B was boosted into orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket. It was designed to stay aloft for nine months, but the Air Force wanted to test its endurance. After determining the space plane was performing well, the military decided in December to extend the mission.

Little has been said publicly about the second X-37B flight and operations. At a budget hearing before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee in March, William Shelton, head of the Air Force Space Command, made a passing mention.

That the second X-37B has stayed longer in space than the first shows "the flexibility of this unique system," he told lawmakers.

Defense analysts are divided over its usefulness.

Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, said such a craft could give the U.S. "eyes" over conflict regions faster than a satellite.

"Having a vehicle with a broad range of capabilities that can get into space quickly is a very good thing," she said.

Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and scientific consultant for the Federation of American Scientists, thinks the capabilities of the X-37B could be done more cheaply with a disposable spacecraft.

"I believe one of the reasons that the mission is still around is institutional inertia," he said.

The arc of the X-37 program spans back to 1999 and has changed hands several times. Originally a NASA project, the space agency in 2004 transferred it to the Pentagon's research and development arm, DARPA, and then to the secretive Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into development, but the current total spent remains a secret.

Built by Boeing Government Space Systems, a unit of the company's satellite manufacturing area, the 11,000-pound space plane stands 9 1/2 feet tall and is just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It possesses two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer. Once in orbit, it has solar panels that unfurl to charge batteries for electrical power.

McDowell of the Jonathan's Space Report sees a downside. He noted it'll be tough for the Air Force to send up such planes on short notice if it has to rely on the Atlas V rocket, which requires lengthy preparations.

"The requirement to go on Atlas V is a problem; they may need to look at a new launch vehicle that would be ready to go more quickly," he said.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.