Secret X-37B space plane lost by sat-spotters for 2 weeks
Roboshuttle relocated - for now
The Register. By Lewis Page • Posted in Space, 24th August 2010
The United States' X-37B robot mini-shuttle spaceplane, which was launched into orbit on a classified mission in April, has changed its orbit. However the "secret space warplane" - as the X-37B has been dubbed by the Iranian government - has now been re-acquired by alert amateur skywatchers.
See the Secretive X-37B Space Plane in Orbit with Phone App
Seasoned skywatchers in North American may have several chances to spot the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B space plane fly overhead with the help of a smart phone app that helps track satellites.
The Simple Satellite Tracker app gives a one-week advance schedule of flybys, and also alerts users to when spacecraft will appear with a countdown clock and a direction guide.
This week, the robotic X-37B space plane and the International Space Station are expected to make a series of good passes over some North American cities and towns, according to Tony Phillips of the website Spaceweather.com, which offers the app for the iPhone and Android phones.
Space weaponry in focus as US Air Force launches mysterious X-37B robotic plane
he U.S. Air Force's second mysterious robotic mini spacecraft, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, carrying classified payload. Soon after the launch a media blackout shrouded the mission in secrecy, fueling speculation about its possible military purposes.
The Air Force has said the unmanned mission is intended to test out new spacecraft technologies. The launch of a second secret space mission in two years has given room for renewed space weaponry rumors though the Air force says the mission is only about testing out hardware for future space shuttles.
"Partly as a result of the secrecy, some concern has been raised — particularly by Russia and China — that the X-37B is a space weapon of some sort," according to space.com.
An X-37B robotic space plane sits on the Vandenberg Air Force base runway during post-landing operations on Dec. 3, 2010. Personnel in self-contained protective atmospheric suits conduct initial checks on the robot space vehicle after its landing. This same craft is due to launch again in fall 2012.
CREDIT: U.S. Air Force/Michael Stonecypher
After spending more than a year orbiting our planet on a hush-hush mystery mission, the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane is due to return to Earth any day now.
Air Force officials haven't announced exactly when the robotic X-37B space plane will land. But on May 30, they said that the spacecraft's homecoming should occur in the "early- to mid-June timeframe" — a window that will close in the next week or so.
The Air Force launched the X-37B on March 5, 2011, sending the reusable space plane design on its second-ever space mission. The X-37B currently zipping around Earth is known as Orbital Test Vehicle-2, or OTV-2.
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California's Vandenberg Air Force Base is viewed as the most likely primary landing site for OTV-2. Edwards Air Force Base, also in California, serves as a backup. [Photos of the 2nd Secret X-37B Mission]
The X-37B looks much like NASA's now-retired space shuttles, only much smaller. The space plane is about 29 feet long by 15 feet wide (8.8 by 4.5 meters), with a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed. A solar array packed in the payload bay powers the spacecraft. For comparison, two entire X-37Bs could fit inside the payload bay of a space shuttle.
OTV-2's flight represents a big jump for the X-37B space plane. The vehicle has been aloft for 462 days as of today (June 8), more than doubling the on-orbit time of the first space-flown X-37B, known as OTV-1.
OTV-1 launched in April 2010 and landed that December, staying on orbit for 225 days — well under the spacecraft's supposed 270-day limit. OTV-2 is nearly 200 days over that limit on its current flight, and the calendar keeps ticking over.
Just what OTV-2 has been doing for so long up there remains a mystery, because the space plane's mission and payloads are classified. Air Force officials have said that the vehicle's chief task is testing out new technologies for future satellites, and some experts think that's likely to be the case.
For example, the space plane may be observing the Middle East and Afghanistan with some brand-new spy gear, according to Brian Weeden, a technical adviser with the Secure World Foundation and a former orbital analyst with the Air Force.
OTV-2's orbit — which takes it repeatedly over the stretch of Earth from 43 degrees north latitude to 43 degrees south latitude — supports this interpretation, Weeden told SPACE.com earlier this year. The space plane's orbital parameters are classified, but amateur astronomers have been tracking OTV-2's movements since it blasted off.
The Air Force also probably wants to push the X-37B's limits on this second flight, to see just what the space plane can do, said Weeden, who published a report in 2010 that investigated the X-37B and its likely missions.
The reusable X-37B space plane looks like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter. The military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.5 feet (2.9 m) tall, and has a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m). The spacecraft sports a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.