Air Force: winged robotic spacecraft launched

Apr 23, 2010
The Air Force is preparing to launch the X-37B spacecraft to perform unspecified technology tests in orbit and then autonomously glide on stubby wings to a landing on a California runway.

(AP) -- An unmanned Air Force space plane resembling a small space shuttle has been launched on its maiden voyage into orbit, carried aloft aboard an Atlas 5 rocket Thursday evening, the service announced.

The rocket carrying the reusable X-37B Orbital lifted off at 7:52 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, an Air Force statement said. It called the launch of the winged spacecraft a success, but released no immediate details of the mission's progress.

The space plane is to serve as a test platform for unspecified experiments and can stay in orbit for up to 270 days before gliding to an autonomous runway landing, the Air Force has said. The primary landing site is Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast northwest of Los Angeles.

The mission length wasn't disclosed by the Air Force.

The service has made public only a general description of the mission objectives: testing of guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection and autonomous operation in orbit, re-entry and landing.

However, the ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about the craft have longed remained a mystery, though experts said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems.

"This launch helps ensure that our warfighters will be provided the capabilities they need in the future," said Col. Andre Lovett, a launch official and vice commander of the Air Force's 45th Space Wing, in Thursday's statement.

The launch culminated the project's long and expensive journey from NASA to the Pentagon's research and development arm and then on to the secretive Rapid Capabilities Office. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the X-37 program, but the current total hasn't been released.

While the massive space shuttles have been likened to cargo-hauling trucks, the X-37B is more like a sports car, with the equivalent trunk capacity.

Built by Boeing Co.'s Phantom Works, the 11,000-pound craft is 9 1/2 feet tall and just over 29 feet long, with a wingspan of less than 15 feet. It has two angled tail fins rather than a single vertical stabilizer.

Unlike the shuttle, it was designed for launch like a satellite, housed in a fairing atop the expendable Atlas V rocket, and capable of deploying solar panels to provide electrical power in orbit.

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User comments : 9

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jabo
1.8 / 5 (5) Apr 23, 2010
nobody has commented on this?? this is freaking me out more and more. I'm not surprised and am a little excited that we have space robots, but still freaked out. aren't I just looking at a super smart ICBM?
SteveL
1 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2010
Submit. Resistance will be futile. Human fears are of no consequence and the future will wait for no one.
baudrunner
5 / 5 (2) Apr 23, 2010
The X-37B project became all the more expeditious after the Chinese satellite destruction test in 2007. The X-37B can be deployed at a moment's notice to send up replacement satellites in the event of similar scenarios during times of crisis. Unlike a simple Atlas deployment of a satellite, this re-usable space plane has far greater versatility, able to deploy and retrieve, or re-equip etc.
baudrunner
5 / 5 (4) Apr 23, 2010
Furthermore, I think that this particular space-plane is more of a scaled-down prototype of the next generation space shuttle. No-one said we aren't going to have space shuttles in the future, just that the current fleet is old and ready for retirement.
zevkirsh
1 / 5 (3) Apr 23, 2010

finally, nasa is realizing that money doesn't grow on trees.
sender
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2010
finally microwave assisted platforms have moved to active wing surface panelling :D

all hail the space generation, now for the en masse optically initiated magnetically confined fusion hybrid reactors to deal with the helium demands for such tech
ebnv
not rated yet Apr 24, 2010
This isn't a NASA project and this toy is of little use other than a reusable polar spy satellite which Vandenberg launches regularly anyway.
--Polar satellites are of use to spy on N. Korea, Russia, and China.
CavemanDev
not rated yet Apr 26, 2010
nobody has commented on this?? this is freaking me out more and more. I'm not surprised and am a little excited that we have space robots, but still freaked out. aren't I just looking at a super smart ICBM?


I'm pretty sure the idea behind an ICBM is that it doesn't HAVE to be smart. "Close" is most certainly good enough with MIRV's.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 26, 2010
nobody has commented on this?? this is freaking me out more and more. I'm not surprised and am a little excited that we have space robots, but still freaked out. aren't I just looking at a super smart ICBM?


I'm pretty sure the idea behind an ICBM is that it doesn't HAVE to be smart. "Close" is most certainly good enough with MIRV's.

Exactly. Atmospheric detonation would do enough damage to ensure target neutralization. No guidance necessary.

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