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. Baby Poco

    Its the XenuCopter.

    December 4, 2010 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
  2. chris

    id say its just an orbital version of the predator. un-armed...for now. Everyone knows that China has a capability to shoot down our satalites, this gives us an edge, and a kind of temporary, highly mobile satellite...that can shoot down other satellites.

    December 4, 2010 at 1:41 am | Report abuse |
  3. clint

    I won't pretend to know what this thing is, but I'm confident of two things:

    1) The US military "leaked" this machine in part to intimidate upstart space programs at a time when NASA is preparing to take even more budgetary cuts

    2) The US military has way more impressive machines in the pipeline that we don't (and may never) know about

    December 4, 2010 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
  4. Pullmyfinger

    Hey man thats an Airstream trailer and you can't go more than 80 mph in those things. If you look closely you will see the wings are simply construction paper. I believe were just looking at an early scene of Battlefield Earth Part 2, you can clearly see John Travolta.

    December 4, 2010 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
  5. Anne Ominous

    The single most valuable mission that this machine could accomplish would be to either be itself, or to deliver to orbit, Thor capability. Not NASA's Thor... Niven's Thor.

    In the Reagan era this idea was called "brilliant pebbles". Which means, of course, "smart rocks" (giving them points for symbolizing them as SMALL rocks). Which in turn means a small but significant mass that can fall from orbit with just enough control and residual velocity to hit a specific building or vehicle at a few thousand miles per hour.

    If you could give a 2' length of construction rebar some control fins and a targeting system, dropping it from LEO could make for a devastating weapon.

    If that needs explaining any further, then you need to start looking things up.

    December 4, 2010 at 2:49 am | Report abuse |
  6. Anne Ominous

    Also:

    Clint is a sharp character. Why didn't they name you Flint?

    December 4, 2010 at 2:52 am | Report abuse |
  7. Steve

    Actually you could use it as a weapon it's unmanned fly it right where they want it to go then says oops we had a accident job finished.

    December 4, 2010 at 2:57 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jim

    This cost how much ... exactly?

    December 4, 2010 at 2:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. C

    What's up with the unusual space suits people are wearing in the photo? This is an unmanned space vehicle on the ground, right? Are they space suits or some other type of suit? Just wondering.

    December 4, 2010 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
  10. Anne Ominous

    Refactor:

    Wikipedia article on "Kinetic Bombardment", in which they identify Jerry Pounelle, Larry Niven's collaborator, as the source of the idea.

    They also mention something the size of a crowbar, rather than rebar, as a viable idea. I wasn't far off.

    December 4, 2010 at 3:08 am | Report abuse |
  11. Anne Ominous

    @Steve: That's like throwing your car at somebody because you are mad at them. Silly and stupid.
    Much better to mount guns on your car (of various kinds). Then, even if the guns don't work, your car is still fine.

    December 4, 2010 at 3:15 am | Report abuse |
  12. Bill

    It's to monitor Planet X, spy, checkout UFOs, and pick up space junk.

    December 4, 2010 at 3:51 am | Report abuse |
  13. flux

    It also transforms into a train, a robot and back.

    December 4, 2010 at 6:54 am | Report abuse |
  14. roy b

    It's just a testing platform for future equipment develpoment. No big scary missions yet.

    December 4, 2010 at 8:33 am | Report abuse |
  15. James william chastain

    Batman and robin and luke skywalker would be proud ! a new high tech space fighter for war in space . but warrior says this is a disaster waiting to happen in the wrong hands , take your pick . and warrior sends out this message . blessed are the peace makers .......yourfreedomis

    December 4, 2010 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
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