Air Force robot space plane returns
December 3rd, 2010
05:02 PM ET

Air Force robot space plane returns

The U.S. Air Force's first unmanned space plane returned to Earth Friday, but its mission remains shrouded in secrecy.

The X-37B, known as Orbital Test Vehicle 1, landed at 1:15 a.m. at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base after spending more than seven months in space on its maiden voyage.

"Today's landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office," said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the X-37B program manager from the AFRCO. "We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission."

During its 220 days in orbit, the unmanned space plane conducted "on-orbit experiments" and "fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-earth orbit to perform an autonomous re-entry before landing," the Air Force said in a press release.

Otherwise, the exact nature of X-37B's mission is unclear because it remains classified.

Some analysts have speculated that the spacecraft is an unmanned orbital spy platform and not a weapon, according to Space.com.

The program's test objectives include risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies, according to the Air Force.

We also know a bit about its features from the Air Force: The unmanned spacecraft is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long-term testing and experimentation. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway. Its height is 9 feet 6 inches and its wingspan is 14 feet 11 inches.

The Air Force is preparing to launch the next X-37B in spring 2011.

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Filed under: Space
soundoff (285 Responses)
  1. Richard Allen

    they launched a new spy satellite...duh. Maybe even put a couple of nukes into orbit.

    December 3, 2010 at 5:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Walter

      Spy satellites (even ones with extensive re-positioning capabilities) wouldn't need to come back and they wouldn't require the extra vehicle to carry them up – that would add unnecessary weight and cost to the launch. This thing is a either a weapon platform with return capabilities for reloading or it's designed to capture foreign spy satellites for return and examination. It certainly is cool.

      December 3, 2010 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • helion

      or it's just a relatively cheap R&D platform. you know, cause sometimes the military does R&D...

      December 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Red Shuttle ... http://x.co/Ka0w

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      the unmanned X-37B seems big but it's just a toy if compared with the Space Shuttle or the RED SHUTTLE ... http://x.co/Ka0w
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      December 3, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Red Shuttle ... http://x.co/Ka0w

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      several repairs and delays clearly show that Discovery is in VERY BAD shape and that launch it is TOO DANGEROUS for the astronauts!!!
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      so, could someone of the Press ask your President and to the NASA administrator to STOP the Discovery’s launch and the full Shuttle program NOW before it’s too late???
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      December 3, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • The Red Shuttle ... http://x.co/Ka0w

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      SpaceX hasn't given yet any detailed info and data about the Dragon

      the specs available in the .pdf published on the SpaceX site aren't so clear

      so, it's hard to evaluate this vehicle to know what it really can or can't do

      these are the exact data we need to know from SpaceX about the Dragon:

      – payload adapter mass ________

      – empty service module mass ________

      – service module propellants mass ________

      – empty capsule mass ________

      – ejected nose cone mass ________

      – max ISS pressurized cargo mass ________

      – max ISS unpressurized cargo mass ________

      – max returned cargo mass ________

      – cargo Dragon GLOW ________

      – crewed Dragon GLOW ________

      – Dragon LAS mass ________

      – max crew life support mass ________

      – max crew+seats+spacesuits mass ________

      – max mission autonomy (days) ________

      – max Falcon-9 "dumb" payload to ISS orbit ________

      all data should be in kg. or mT (1000 kg.)

      the data of the crewed Dragon should be for a full, seven astronauts, mission

      could the "commercial" SpaceX give CLEAR data and answers to the space community, the american taxpayers (that will pay $2 billions to SpaceX...) and the (potential) investors?

      remember that NASA and USA should RELY (mainly or only) on the Falcon-9 and Dragon for the next TEN+ years!!!

      just read this article about the NASA "future":

      http://www.ghostnasa.com/posts2/062nasadecline.html

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      December 3, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Entropy

      Nukes in orbit is just about as big a no-no as you can get. Somehow I doubt they did that, because if anybody found out, everybody would be all over it before you could say "PR Fiasco".

      December 4, 2010 at 12:31 am | Report abuse |
    • Tfm

      First of all nukes are too heavy to orbit.

      December 4, 2010 at 12:37 am | Report abuse |
    • Entropy

      Tacticals aren't too heavy. Besides, slap a couple in the megaton range onto a Delta IV Heavy rocket and just park them in orbit until the rest of the hardware gets up there.

      December 4, 2010 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
    • mechatronics

      Really? What would be the benefit of launching nukes into space? Where did they put them? Why stay 7 months after putting the nukes and spy satellites in space. Would we really need a secret vehicle to launch spy satellites since we have many in space to begin with?

      December 4, 2010 at 2:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      I think its more of a weapon that they can drop anywhere they want without worrying about radar. And once the job at hand was destroyed we can all go oops we just had a little accident that took your nuclear plant out. Sorry

      December 4, 2010 at 3:06 am | Report abuse |
    • danny

      i think its an anti satellite project...the space vehicle will go in orbit..disabling hostile satellites from space without use of a ground launched missile...or bring a full hostile satellite back to earth....

      December 4, 2010 at 3:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Jose ramiros

      china just crapped their pants

      December 4, 2010 at 4:15 am | Report abuse |
    • thirdbornson65

      "Star Trek" United States style has finally arrived!

      December 4, 2010 at 12:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Noreii

      All I have to say is God Bless America........I don't know what it does, but with what China is up to with its mini satellites. We are going to need something like this.........My intuition tells me that Star Wars is on the horizon. I also would like to pray openly for a turnaround in our morals in this country. We are going to need our integrity to come back soon. Looking at all the challenges flying around on the headlines today. Together we stand, divided we fall.

      December 4, 2010 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • wbaldwin

      what did eisenhower say about the military industrial complex? oh ya= http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY

      so we can now kill civilians with things falling from space? this is just great, nasa was the nerd that did the air force's homework and now they'll just hand the controls over to some jock that plays halo all day.

      the reason wikileaks released such damaging evidence is that there MUST be accountability. There is no accountability if you can just drop a bowling ball from space to destroy someone's house.

      oh, and you say it's not a weapon, but a tool for espionage? The only way i see that is truely for gaining intelligence is as a satellite deployment platform since the space shuttle is done now. Which makes even more sense as to why there are so many cuts to nasa. military doesn't need them anymore!

      why would we choose something that flys above the atmosphere when we can send a jet? is the aurora project gone, was it ever real? N. Korea can't shoot down anything but a U2.

      technology and science shouldn't be used to kill people. we do just fine with clubs and rocks.

      December 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • wbaldwin

      oooo, danny has a point. satellite jacking! i never thought of that one, they could even be sending a manned flight without us knowing.

      If n. korea or china can't get their soaps one day, they better watch out. could be our pre-emptive plan of taking all satellite communications out permanently. cold war 2.0.

      December 4, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tad Pole

      Given the track record of the shuttle, I HIGHLY doubt that they would be using this platform to "put nukes in orbit".

      December 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Gavin876

    This has to be an unmanned interceptor. Capable of being fitted with an onboard laser weapon. Nice to see we are advancing into automation. Defence is always a plus:)

    December 3, 2010 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Entropy

      Where do you guys keep getting laser from?

      Besides, this isn't automated, simply remote-controlled. Still need a human behind the stick, even if the stick is in another continent.

      December 4, 2010 at 12:42 am | Report abuse |
  3. Gavin876

    This has to be an unmanned interceptor. Capable of being fitted with an onboard laser weapon. Nice to see we are advancing into automation. Defence is always a plus.

    December 3, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jeff

    Maybe they sent it up there to scan the earth for intellegent life? Unfortunately, they forgot to install the memory system and didn't realize it until the day before it returned.

    December 3, 2010 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bob

    How Spaceplane Supports The Warfighter
    • On-Demand ISR
    • Pre-Strike Planning
    • BDA
    • Sensor-to -Shooter
    • Flexible Constellation
    • Unpredictable Orbits
    • Ground & Marine Sensor
    Force Enhancement
    • Global Precision
    Strike
    • CAV’s Crossrange
    • Centers of Gravity
    • HDBT Defeat
    • WMD Defeat
    • US Based
    • Time-to-Tgt < 90 minForce Applications
    • Cost Effective Lift
    • Reusable Booster
    • Life Cycle Savings
    • Launch on Demand
    • Launch to Sustain
    • Recover Space Assets
    • On-orbit Servicing
    • Support ACTDs &
    Testing
    Space Support
    • Defensive Counterspace
    • Satellite Protection
    • Offensive Counterspace
    • Space Surveillance
    • SOI
    • SMV Fly-bys
    Space Control
    DR/MSP Overview

    December 3, 2010 at 7:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • yeah-hmm

      ...it also has extensive list-making capabilities.

      December 3, 2010 at 10:55 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realistic12

      OK, well here is my list of guys without girlfriends:
      1. Bob

      December 4, 2010 at 2:12 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bob

    That's awesome O.O

    December 3, 2010 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jim

    Clearly a new mapping platform, launched by the US military – a wholy owned subsidiary of GoogleEarth.

    December 3, 2010 at 8:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • alypilot

      ....clearly.......

      December 3, 2010 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Mikel1

    This is SWWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEETTTTTTTTTT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 3, 2010 at 8:49 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Dave

    Your all wrong. Its an intergalactic terrorist catapult. They tested it by launching homeless people into the sun.

    December 3, 2010 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark, Toronto

      LOL this is probably the funniest and most accurate of them all, some folks have to stop watching so many James Bond movies. Wonder if its funded by the GOP 😉

      December 4, 2010 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
  10. Cesar

    @Bob. You think that you're so smart with that list of technicalities. ACTD,SOI,DR/MSP . I don't know what this stuff is, but you know what? I can say Bob backwards: ...........Bob.

    December 3, 2010 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      • On-Demand ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance)

      • CAV’s Crossrange (Common Aero Vehicle)
      • HDBT Defeat (Hard and Deeply Buried Targets)
      • SOI (Space Object Identification)
      • BDA (Battle Damage Assessment)
      ACTD (Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration)

      December 3, 2010 at 9:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Name

      Own3d

      December 3, 2010 at 9:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • JollyD

      Man!
      Cut and Paste is so cool!
      No blades!
      I miss the smell of hydrocarbons in my nostrils.
      Shaken or stirred.
      NO ONE CARES

      "down with pants earthling" - Anon.

      December 3, 2010 at 10:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • mickey1313

      owned by bob, what about bob?

      December 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
  11. David

    And the tech just keeps getting better.

    December 3, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  12. meee

    That would be a sweet toy even for backward bob

    December 3, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Report abuse |
  13. J Assange

    since it was paid for by WayneTech I suspect billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, i suspect he really is BATMAN

    December 3, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Danny

    when is wiki leak, when you need them 😛

    December 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  15. JRH

    Eh... not designed to capture foreign spy satellites. For starters, that's an act of war (of course these days we do things like invading Iraq and Afthanistan, and bombing Pakistani territory without declaring war, so no big deal there). Secondly, this thing is nowhere NEAR big enogh to nab a spy satellite. Its wingspan is only 14 feet. That's barely big enough to carry a couple of people, much less a gigantic spy satellite. Some of those things are the size of a bus or bigger. The Hubble isn't a unique piece of equipment. It's just a KH spy satellite pointing up instead of down.

    December 3, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
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