UPDATE: The USAF, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, launched it’s 3rd orbital test vehicle (OTV-3) into space today, aboard an Atlas V rocket.
The Atlas V rocket roared into space exactly as planned at 1:03pm EST. The launch was flawless, and went off without a hitch. The unmanned, robotic space vehicle, named X-37B, lifted off into space on a classified mission, and Defense Department Officials along with the USAF have remained tight lipped about the spacecrafts mission, and it’s possible future uses.
The spaceplane, termed an orbital test vehicle (OTV-3) by the United Launch Alliance, and is basically a smaller version of our own Space Shuttle.
This is the second attempt at launch for the X-37 B, as the initial launch attempt in October was scrapped because of a fuel leak.
The launch window is from 1 PM till 6 PM Eastern time, and there is only a 30% chance of favorable weather conditions for lift off.
Boeing and the USAF are being extremely tight-lipped about this program, and the first two launches of the spacecraft, in April, 2010 and March, 2011 respectively, were announced without any further details being released.
The Boeing X-37 B Orbital Test Vehicle is an American built reusable unmanned spacecraft, and is launched into space onboard an Atlas V rocket, then re-enters our atmosphere and lands like a plane similar to the Space Shuttle.
The supersecret spaceplane’s first orbital mission, dubbed USA – 212, was launched from Cape Canaveral on April 22, 2010 onboard an Atlas V rocket. It returned to Earth successfully on December 3, 2010, landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. It’s mission lasted 224 days, and was essentially a test of the vehicles heat shield and hypersonic aerodynamics handling.
The second launch of the X-37B, dubbed USA-226, lifted off from Cape Canaveral on Saturday, March 5, 2011 and returned to Edwards Air Force Base on Saturday, June 16, 2011, orbiting the Earth for a total of 469 days, which is twice the number of days of the first mission, giving one pause to consider the length of this mission, designated OTV-3.
NASA developed the project with Boeing in 1999 and the X-37 project was transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense in the year 2004. It conducted its first test flight as a drop test on April 7, 2006 from Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The X37B, once transferred to the Department of Defense, was assigned to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in September 2004. DARPA has its roots in the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and has championed the project as part of the independent space policy within the United States Department of Defense, created after the Challenger incident.
In 2010, in an article for Space Daily, Tom Burghardt said that the X-37B might be used as a spy satellite or perhaps to deliver weapons from space. The Pentagon has denied those claims, but does however support the development of space-based weapons.
In January of this year, it is alleged that the X-37B was spying on the Chinese space station module, Tiangong–1. Brian Weeden, a former USAF orbital analyst, later contradicted these assertions, noting that the different orbital patterns of the two spacecraft precluded any surveillance with fly-bys.
Boeing and the US Department of Defense have announced plans for a scaled up version of the X-37B, referencing the spacecraft as the X-37C, which will be somewhere between 165% to 180% larger than the X-37B. The redesigned spacecraft would have the ability to hold six astronauts inside a pressurized compartment that would be housed in the cargo bay area of the spacecraft.
The X37C may have some competition from Boeing, and it’s CST 100 commercial space capsule, as well as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
Military applications for the spacecraft have been bandied about by more than a few related organizations, and the exact mission and potential for the OTV-3 has been kept top secret.
Article by Jim Donahue