Mystery space plane sets endurance record; space marathon on

The United States Air Force's (USAF) second flight of the X-37B robotic mini space shuttle has exceeded its expected endurance limit of 270 days on orbit and the USAF has announced it is extending its flight. Doing what? Mum's the word.

The space plane, dubbed the Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2), was launched from Cape Canaveral via an Atlas V 501 rocket on March 5, 2011. It sailed past its use-by date on its current mission at the end of this November.

The USAF has deemed the mission to still be in excellent health and has not announced any immediate plans for the OTV-2 to land. Given that the first OTV mission launched in April 2011 ended in 224 days, it appears part of the tweaks made to the OTV-2 includes more efficient use of fuel stores allowing for the longer flight.

The OTV is similar to the recently retired fleet of NASA shuttles, with payload bays allowing for deployment of payloads or experimentation on orbit. Whether it is carrying anything now or has a mission beyond vehicle testing is a guarded secret.

The secretive nature of the flights have led to speculation as to the purpose of these flights — or what they could carry. The Chinese Press has speculated the OTVs could be used for weaponry.

Boeing has announced the X-37B could be modified to roughly double in size and conduct manned missions. Should a revised model be ordered (an X-37C) it would be used to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Despite not knowing the purpose of the mission, the success of the current mission with the extension of OTV-2 flight gives hope to many that feared the U.S. space program was dead with the shuttering of NASA's shuttles.

Via Universe Today

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