Air Force Unmanned Space Plane Returns

Air Force

Touching down for the return to California, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B unmanned space plane has completed a near two-year mission. While the mission of the X-37B, which looks like a miniature space shuttle, has come to a conclusion, questions about what the actual mission have surfaced. Trying to figure out what the mission actually is the popular topic of theorists.

The X-37B is one of two space planes that are in the Pentagon inventory and under the control of the Air Force’s 30th Space Wing. On Friday morning, it landed at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base after a long journey above the earth. Prior to touching down on terra firma, the craft spent 22 months, or 674 days in space, which is the extent of the information the crafts handlers would divulge. That along with the information that the craft conducted what they called “on-orbit experiments.”

In a statement the Air Force reported that, “The mission is our longest to date,” and went on to say that the Air Force was happy with the small steps in progress seen in the testing of the reusable unmanned craft. Anything beyond that about the current mission is being kept a close secret with the Department of Defense. The next mission for the X-37B is slated for some time in 2015. The craft will be taken to Florida and launch from Cape Canaveral.

Air ForceWhile the Boeing-built craft conducted the hush-hush mission that lasted nearly two years, the public did gain some insight into the craft. The X-37B is totally unmanned and flew autonomously during the return trip to earth. While unknown missions are flown, speculation that the crafts are conducting surveillance or satellite launches, even speculation that the crafts are armed and destroying satellites. The speculation of an armed space drone does not stop with satellite killing. There is speculation that the craft is part of a weapons platform locked in on ground targets.

However, while the Air Force has revealed little, that has led to the speculation, the thought is that it could be a bit more mundane in its missions. The missions may be testing extended flights into orbit, the viability of a craft flying through space and what effects it could have on a manned mission over that timeframe. Testing of the algorithms needed to enable the craft for orbital maneuvers and re-entry that could be implemented into future manned spacecraft to be used in an emergency situation.

According to the boilerplate description on the fact sheet from the Air Force stating that the primary objectives of the Boeing and U.S. Air Force craft are twofold as a reusable craft that travels into space with technologies for the United States future in space and conducting experiments which will be brought back to and examined by scientists and engineers on Earth. With the military running the missions, the speculation on what these experiments are and how the U.S. Government is planning to utilize space for the military.

The X-37B, or Orbital Test Vehicle, was launched into orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket on Dec. 11, 2012 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was the third mission for the vehicles. The first lasted eight months after launching in April of 2010 and the second flew for 15 months, launching in March of 2011. While the current mission for the unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane has returned, it is unknown how long the fourth unmanned mission set for next year will last and like all the other missions, its purpose will remain shrouded in secrecy.

By Carl Auer

Sources:
CNET
Reuters
Fox13 Salt Lake City
U.S. Air Force photo by Michael Stonecypher – Flickr License
Boeing photo/ Paul Pinner – Flickr License

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