Tuesday, 8 March 2011
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The Air Force has launched a second experimental space plane that resembles a small shuttle.
An Atlas 5 rocket blasted off with the unmanned space plane Saturday afternoon from Cape Canaveral. Air Force officials aren't saying much about the X-37B orbital test vehicle. It's the second of its type to be launched. The first rocketed into orbit last spring. It landed in California in December following a 270-day mission.
The X-37B is 29 feet long with a wing span of 15 feet.
The Air Force says the newest craft will..
serve as a test platform for satellite sensors and systems. Officials say the voyage will build upon what was learned during the first mission, though they won't say what that was.
The ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about the craft largely remain a mystery.
A small robotic space shuttle
With its blunt nose and stubby wings, the unmanned X-37B spacecraft resembles a miniature version of NASA's space shuttles. The vehicle was originally developed as part of a NASA project that was shifted to the military when funding ran dry.
The spacecraft is about 29 feet (almost 9 meters) long and 14 feet wide (nearly 4.5 meters), with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. It is designed to launch vertically inside the nose cone of a rocket, stay in orbit for months at a time, and then land horizontally on a runway like a space shuttle.
But unlike NASA's shuttles, the X-37B space plane does everything autonomously. It also has a solar array that is deployed from its payload bay to generate power during its months-long stay in orbit [Infographic: The X-37B Space Plane]
"There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it," Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager in the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said before the first X-37B mission blasted off last year.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office oversees the X-37B space plane program for the U.S. military.
Secret second test flight
Air Force officials have not said much about first X-37B mission, and they're been similarly tight-lipped about the upcoming second flight with the OTV-2 vehicle.
But the Air Force has said that the X-37B spacecraft should help the Air Force test and demonstrate new technologies — such as guidance, navigation and control systems — that could be used on future satellites.
The secrecy surrounding the X-37B has led to some speculation that the plane could be a space weapon of some sort. But Air Force officials have repeatedly denied that charge, and some experts have postulated that it is a platform for space reconnaissance.
The X-37B is built by Boeing's Space and Intelligence Systems division. It can fly long, extended missions because of its solar array power system, which allows it to stay in orbit for up to 270 days, Air Force officials have said.
Originally, NASA used the space plane as an experimental test bed until funding for the project ran out in 2004.
The vehicle then passed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and was ultimately turned over to the Air Force in 2006.