If anyone thought that the USA was taking a back seat in space with the retirement of the shuttle fleet……..Think again ! The new piece of Tech is the X-37B and it has just returned to earth after spending 15 months on a clandestine mission in space.
The secretive unmanned US space shuttle landed at a California military base early Saturday.
It was the second such autonomous landing at the Vandenberg air force base, 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles. In 2010, an identical unmanned spacecraft returned to Earth after seven months and 91m miles in orbit.
The latest homecoming was set in motion when the stubby-winged robotic X-37B fired its engine to slip out of orbit, then pierced through the atmosphere and glided down the runway like an airplane.
The twin X-37B vehicles are part of a military program testing robotically controlled reusable spacecraft technologies. Though the air force has emphasized the goal is to test the space plane itself, there’s a classified payload on board – a detail that has led to much speculation about the mission’s ultimate purpose.
Some amateur trackers think the craft carried an experimental spy satellite sensor judging by its low orbit and inclination, suggesting reconnaissance or intelligence gathering rather than communications. The latest X-37B was boosted into orbit atop an Atlas 5 rocket. It was designed to stay aloft for nine months, but the air force wanted to test its endurance. After determining the space plane was performing well, the military decided in December to extend the mission.
Little has been said publicly about the second X-37B flight and operations. At a budget hearing before the Senate armed services subcommittee in March, William Shelton, head of the air force space command, made a passing mention. That the second X-37B has stayed longer in space than the first shows “the flexibility of this unique system”, he told lawmakers.
The arc of the X-37 program spans back to 1999 and has changed hands several times.
Originally a NASA project, the space agency in 2004 transferred it to the Pentagon’s research and development arm, Darpa, and then to the secretive air force rapid capabilities office.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into development, but the current total spent remains a secret. Built by Boeing’s Phantom Works, the 11,000-pound space plane stands 9 1/2 feet tall and is just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It possesses two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer. Once in orbit, it has solar panels that unfurl to charge batteries for electrical power. Controlled by a pilot back on earth with a joy stick this “drone” will allow the USA to control anything in space . It is possible that it could even capture other satellites! Very COOL …