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. mm

    How did this one fly past wikileaks? I hope he kicks himself in his a$$ for not getting this one out! Jerk that he is!

    December 4, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Michael

    And as we now continue to develop the technology that will lead to manned space travel, so must we also develop the technology that will allow us to WEAPONIZE the ships. So that when we come into contact with the Covenant, we can wipe them out. And any other aliens we meet too....;)

    December 4, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Bleh, the Master Chief already cleaned the Covenant's clocks.

      December 4, 2010 at 4:44 pm | Report abuse |
  3. doughnuts

    Bring back the DC-X program!

    December 4, 2010 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Carlos

    I am relieved that the U.S. has some sort of evolving space capability. I was concerned that, with the end of the shuttle program, and with the cancellation of the Orion program, the U.S. would be relegated to watching as the Chinese declared sovereignty over the Moon and Mars.

    December 4, 2010 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. gary

    no money for schools but always money for killing machines

    December 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      So, an unmanned shuttle is a killing machine?
      Chew lead paint chips as a child much?

      December 4, 2010 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
  6. GTR5

    It is a part of Skynet.

    December 4, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Sagebrush Shorty

    If it wasn't a weapon of some type the Air Force would never have launched it.

    December 4, 2010 at 5:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Yeah, like that GPS weapon the Air Force launched decades ago and maintains.
      Yep, GPS is a deadly weapon!

      December 4, 2010 at 5:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realistic12

      I think you may be trying to be funny or are highly uneducated.

      December 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      Trust me, I'm well educated.
      Just like the communications satellites are weapons too.
      At least in Sagebrush Shorty's world...

      Me, I know better. I've used BOTH systems over my career in the US Army.

      December 4, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jim

    Tang was actually invented by General Mills in 1957.

    December 4, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • Realistic12

      For NASA

      December 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Realistic12

    And it was General Foods

    December 4, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Stosh

      Realistic12, you are completely wrong. Tang was not developed by or for NASA. Go to their web site; they explain it all there.

      In fact, Tang was created BEFORE NASA EXISTED!!

      I'm curious as to how thiese silly rumors start, and why they continue to be passed along.

      December 4, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Report abuse |
  10. The Other Rachel

    We need to fix what we've screwed up down here on the Earth before we start trashing the places beyond our atmosphere. OOPS– too late– there's a ton of garbage orbiting our planet already.

    December 4, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  11. BobaFett

    Other possible Uses:

    Lifeboat for the Shuttle
    Resupply to the ISS

    If it can be done cheap enough ($5M-10M) it can replace the shuttle as we could send subassemblies of parts that combine to create a module in space.
    Could send multiples of these to store supplies on the moon. Hello Mining.

    December 4, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. rusty

    Guess it ain't a secret now!!

    December 4, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Pete

    Dropped a few artillery rounds on South Korea maybe?

    December 4, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Troy the ex-Boeing employee.

    Attention to the negative shuttle posters. I worked in procurement for the Space Shuttle at Boeing in the 90s. The antiquated computer you people are referring to focuses entirely on raw functions—thrusters on, thrusters off—which, though mathematically complex, doesn’t require the horsepower that a user interface like Windows calls for. Yard sale purchases? Hardly. There is not a need for a robust PC because there is not a GPU in place, nor are there processes occurring like: encoding MP3s or making a powerpoint slide.

    ALSO: The X37B is a USAF project. Space Shuttle Orbiter is NASA. Two totally different Factions with different sets of Funding. NASA has brought more technology to the world than most of you realize. Why dont you guys go check out their website?

    December 4, 2010 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. justmeanddog

    Neat looking 2nd generation sky-truck.
    Wonder why those guys have Hazmat suits on?
    Wonder why it landed at night?
    Wonder whats in the box?

    December 4, 2010 at 7:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • foxthree

      1. hazmat suits are for protection as the X-37B did just spend time in space, one of the ground crew has what most likely is a geiger counter, this is reported to be standard procedure when the shuttle returns from its missions as well
      2. its classified, why land in the day time when everyone can see it?
      3. as with most flight line equipment, the boxes most likely have a maintenance purpose

      December 4, 2010 at 8:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Captain Obvious

      Those aren't hazmat suits. That bird is very hot after landing (as is the shuttle). The suits are heat resistant so the ground crew can get close enough to do their jobs.

      December 4, 2010 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Raven

      Hazmat suits? Can you say Hydrazine? I knew you could.....

      December 4, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Inverter

      "Captain Obvious": Friend, please research a subject before posting confusing and incorrect information.
      Heat resistant suits are indeed classified as "HAZMAT suits", especially in such a setting. Yes, the suits shown in the video would provide some level of heat resistance, no doubt, but you are mistaken with your claim that the suits are primarily for heat resistance; if this were the case, suits specailiing in heat/fire resistance would have a relfective aluminized outer skin.

      "Raven": Hydrazine is a hazardous material and working with it would classified for "HAZMAT" suit(s). So try to reprimand yourself first, before others here. Can you say you're arrogantly wrong? I knew you could...

      The HAZMAT suits seen in the video/stills are extremely expensive and specialized. They are the best of their kind and simply classifying these beauties in with the rest of the level A protective suits... seems almost insulting.
      Note the metal locking ring points used to attach the boots & gloves (reminiscent of a space suit, more than a HMS). These suits are very specialized, rare and almost never used outside the military/government contracted civilian bio labs.
      Research this subject yourself and simply attempt to match these suits with any other commonly available level A HAZMAT suit... you will not find them. These suits would cost upwards of $10,000 and I wouldn't be shocked if they cost our military 20k.

      December 5, 2010 at 9:48 pm | Report abuse |
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