Robotic Space Plane Lands After More Than A Year In Orbit

By Brian Williams | 8 years ago

While NASA has had tons of issues with funding over the years, been caught in political squabbles, and even had members of the Senate dictate how they should build spacecraft, the U.S. Air Force has had no such problems.  Enter the X-37B. An experimental robotic space plane designed for the U.S. Air Force by Boeing to “test new space technologies” or, if you are reading between the lines, be a highly mobile spy satellite that has the ability to land and be fitted with different, mission specific hardware.

On its first flight (that we know of), back in April of 2010, the small space plane stayed in orbit for 224 days and made the first autonomous landing of an orbital spacecraft on a runway since the Soviet copy-cat shuttle Buran made its first and final landing in 1988. During the craft’s first mission it managed to lose a little bit of its “secret” cred after being spotted and tracked by several amateur astronomers around the globe, although there were periods where they lost track of it apparently due to the X-37B’s ability to change orbit.

Here’s a vid of the X-37B’s most recent landing…

The X-37B launched on its second mission on March 5, 2011 and finally landed on June 16, 2012 after a whopping 469 days in space. For a machine that was designed to spend only 270 days in space, that is quite a feat. With the advanced development and testing of the X-37B going so well, it may be only a matter of time before Boeing and the Air Force decide to build and launch the next step of the X-37 program, the X-37C. The X-37C is a proposed scaled up version of the current design, up to about 180% bigger, that would house six astronauts in a pressurized cargo bay while being flown by either remote control or the autonomous robotic flight system. Keep in mind that the X-37 is still a Department of Defense project, so it’s anybody’s guess if the next step up will be used to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station or if we never even hear about it and it ends up being used as some sort of rapid deployment vehicle.

But then again, there are always other uses…

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