The Air Force's X-37B robotic space plane made its landing at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base Saturday morning successfully completing more than 15 months in space. The video, shot partly in infrared, showed the vehicle coming in for its automated landing glowing in parts, due to the heat from re-entry.
This is the second X-37B to take flight (OTV-2), following in the footsteps of a sister plane's test flight in 2010. The OTV-2 had launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on March 5, 2011 and though built to operate for nine months at a time in between servicing, it exceeded the mission parameters with its 469 day run.
Endurance testing was the outward goal of the OTV-2 flight according to the Air Force.
While similar in appearance to the Space Shuttle, at 29 feet long, the X-37B is much smaller; with a payload bed roughly the size of a pickup truck. Despite its small size, managing fuel consumption for such an extended mission was a complex task — involving paying close attention to orbital parameters and how and when the engines, batteries and extendable solar panels were used.
The billion-dollar, Boeing-built X-37B has been in development since the 1990s and was designed to be a research vehicle, carrying experiments as its payload. But, because the robotic space plane is smaller and more agile, some headlines have theorized it — and its extended mission — could have been readying it for other uses.
It is thought the X-37B could be used for a variety of purposes, anything from cargo delivery to the ISS to potential spying missions.
Despite the successful test missions, and the ability of the spacecraft to take up some duties left up in the air with the retirement of the Shuttle fleet last summer, it is unclear what the big picture plan is for the unmanned craft. Budget cuts and funding being diverted to other programs make it unlikely that Boeing and the Air Force would move forward on the creation of new models, much less the proposed proposed X-37C which could carry a bigger payload and crew.
In the short term, the Air Force plans to re-launch the OTV-1 this fall and is considering plans for the OTV-2, with an eye towards continued endurance and operational improvements.