The Air Force’s secret robotic space plane

Officially it is the Boeing X-37B or Orbital Test Vehicle-1 (OTV-1) but it is better known as the Air Force’s Space Plane. The X-37B was first launched into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket on April 22, 2010.

According to Air Force sources the Space Plane is not armed and is unmanned. It is currently the world’s only reusable operational spacecraft and the only US spacecraft capable of autonomous re-entry.

The X-37B has a wingspan of 4.5 Meters, length of 8.9 meters, height of 2.9 meters and a loaded weight of 4990 kilograms. The X-37B has a small payload bay of 2.1 by 1.2 meters with a carrying weight of 227 kilograms. With integrated Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries the Space Plane has an unclassified orbital endurance of 270 days.

The OTV-1 is the result of over ten years of design, research and development. The program was started in 1999 as part of the Department of Defense independent space program which was prompted by the 1986 Challenger disaster. The X-37B underwent drop testing in 2006. It was attached to the Scaled Composites White Knight, a carrier aircraft better known for launching the privately owned SpaceShipOne flights. The first flight was successful but some minor issues on landing caused the X-37B to go off the runway. It then underwent a long repair and improvement process. Subsequently, at least five more flights were performed. Originally designed to be carried into orbit by the Space Shuttle, this plan was changed after the 2003 Columbia Disaster and the shuttle program was scaled back. The X-37B was then transferred as a shrouded payload to the Delta V rocket launch program. A second OTV-1 is being built for flight testing in 2011.

Based on the Space Shuttle design, the X-37 has updated technology such as advance avionics and heat tiles. The OTV-1 has a Space Support mission and is designed to refuel and repair friendly satellites with a robotic arm. It could easily transition from a Space Support role to a Space Control role. This change in role would require a change in national space and military policy.

Representatives of the People’s Republic of China government and military have indicated that the development of the X-37B could start an arms race in space. They state that since the OTV-1 could have an Anti-satellite (ASAT) capability, China might have to prepare satellite defenses. The OTV-1 could be seen as a partial response to the Chinese’s own ASAT capability, which was demonstrated in 2007 when a Chinese missile destroyed an old weather satellite in orbit.

A Space Plane recently retruned to earth after more than a year in orbit.



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