(CAPE CANAVERAL, FL) — A prototype of an advanced space plane by the U.S. Air Force will make it’s debut on Thursday as it heads into space a top an Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral.
The 29-foot long, 11,000-pound Orbital Test Vehicle (X37-B) is a white winged craft with a similar style as the U.S. space shuttle.
“The OTV has the potential to revolutionize how the Air Force operates in space by making space operations more aircraft like and adding in the capability for returnable plug-and-play experiments,” David Hamilton, Director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities office stated last week.
In 1999, NASA begun the X37 project, however the space agency handed it over to DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in September 2004. DARPA is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
DARPA, originally formed in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency, is an office designed to prevent technological surprises against the United States, such as the Soviets launch of Sputnik in 1957.
The OTV project partnership between the military, DARPA and NASA was announced in October 2006.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5-501 remains set to lift-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s launch complex 41 on April 22 at 7:52 pm EDT (2352 GMT). The launch window closes at 8:01 pm.
This reporter has learned from a source that the Boeing-built X-37B will launch into a low earth orbit of about 350 miles high, and could stay aloft for over 100 days. The craft has the ability to stay aloft for 270 days, the Air Force stated to this reporter.
During the classified year ahead, the robotic spacecraft will be maneuvered around and will test it’s “advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics and high temperature structures and seals”, Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young reported.
The orbital vehicle will be powered via Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries.
Once the Air Force brings the reusable space plane home, it will reenter just like the space shuttle and will aim for a touchdown on runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB.
The belly of the vehicle is protected with a black thermal protection system designed by NASA. The X37-B has a wing span of 14 feet, 11 inches from tip to tip.
Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the OTV systems program director said, “Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it.”
If weather or technical issues arise on landing day, then Edwards, AFB will be called up with it’s longer runway.
The question on the minds of most in both military and civilian uniforms are asking if this is a one time event, or the start of a second generation space shuttle.
The military was to have taken over shuttle Discovery in 1986 for DoD flights from Vandenberg. However fuel contamination issues and the Challenger break-up forced the cancellation of a military launch pad in California.
Following a successful flight, the next OTV flight is slated for mid-2011.
Story by Charles Atkeison