Air Force To Launch Secretive X-37B Plane In October

By Amir Khan on September 25, 2012 9:35 AM EDT

X-37B
The U.S. military's secretive space plane, the X-37B, is scheduled to blast off again next month for its third test, Air Force officials said. The plane will test the craft's ability to be reused, and officials said the spacecraft could land in Florida, on the runway once used for NASA space shuttles. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The U.S. military's secretive space plane, the X-37B, is scheduled to blast off again next month for its third test, Air Force officials said. The plane will test the craft's ability to be reused, and officials said the spacecraft could land in Florida, on the runway once used for NASA space shuttles.

The mission, dubbed Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3), is slated to begin next month when the ship is launched onboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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"Preparations for launch at Cape Canaveral have begun," Major Tracy Bunko, at the Pentagon's Air Force press desk, said, according to the Huffington Post. "We are on track to launch OTV-3 next month; however, the exact date remains subject to change based on range conditions, weather, etc."

Experts said the ship could replace the space shuttle for future NASA missions.

"With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development," Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager said, according to ABC News. "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."

The craft is similar in shape to NASA's recently retired space shuttle, but approximately half as big. At 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, two X-37Bs could fit into a space shuttle. The X-37B is powered by a solar array that generates power to keep the craft in orbit.

"One of the most promising aspects of the X-37B is it enables us to examine a payload system or technology in the environment in which it will perform its mission and inspect them when we bring them back to Earth," Bunko told the Huffington Post. "Returning an experiment via the X-37B OTV enables detailed inspection and significantly better learning than can be achieved by remote telemetry alone."

Earlier this year, the ship spent 469 days in orbit. The X-37B launched from Cape Canaveral on March 5, 2011, and was scheduled to spend 270 in orbit, but the Air Force kept it there far beyond that time frame, making the mission a "spectacular success." However, the Air Force would not comment on what the spacecraft did during its orbit, only saying that it "conducted on-orbit experiments."

The craft's sister vehicle spent 224 days in space in 2010 under a similar veil of secrecy, leading some to speculate that it could be a space weapon of some sort. Experts, however, were quick to dismiss such claims.

"This is a test vehicle to prove the materials and capabilities, to put experiments in space and bring them back and check out the technologies," Richard McKinney, the Air Force's deputy undersecretary for space programs, said in 2010, according to MSNBC. "My words to others who might read anything else into that is, 'Just listen to what we're telling you.' This is, pure and simple, a test vehicle so we can prove technologies and capabilities."

Bunko said that the existing infrastructure that the space shuttle used makes the X-37B more cost effective.

"We are seeking to leverage previous space shuttle investments and are investigating the possibility of using the former shuttle infrastructure for X-37B OTV landing operations," Bunko said. "Those investigations are in an early state, and any specifics will not be known for some time, but could potentially be used as early as for the landing of OTV-3."

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