More than 430 days after its March 11, 2011 launch to low-Earth orbit (LEO), the United States Air Force space plane X-37B is still going strong, breaking record after record, in what is undoubtedly an extremely successful mission.
The payload the spacecraft carries, as well as its mission, is classified, but the USAF did let it slip on occasion that the space plane is exceeding expectations, having already spent more than 14 months in space. The X-37B was developed specifically for autonomous, long-duration missions in LEO.
The spacecraft is built by the Boeing Company. Originally, more than 13 years ago, NASA was in charge of the project, but X-37B was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004. This is when it was classified, though that status could be changed soon.
At this point, DARPA and Boeing are constructing and operating the vehicles for the USAF. During the 28th National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, held on April 17, USAF Space Command leader, General William Shelton, briefly mentioned the success of the mission, Space
“Our second X-37 test vehicle has been on orbit for 409 days now. Although I can't talk about mission specifics, suffice it to say this mission has been a spectacular success,” he said at the time. According to specifications, the spacecraft need to be able to remain airborne for at least 270 days.
The first mission, USA-212, lasted for 224 days, during which experts validated a large number of systems and processes on the spacecraft. This is in part why the new mission has been so successful.
The vehicle that flew the first X-37B mission, dubbed OTV-1, will be launched into space again this fall, aboard an Atlas V delivery system. This time, it will most likely remain in orbit for more than 270 days, officials let slip.
“We are very pleased with the results of ongoing X-37B experiments. The X-37B program is setting the standard for a reusable space plane and, on this one-year orbital milestone, has returned great value on the experimental investment,” Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre says.
“Upon completion of all objectives, we look forward to bringing the mission to a safe, successful conclusion,” adds the official, who represents the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. Most likely, the USAF will return the spacecraft home at the first signs of trouble.
However, it would appear that the robotic space plane is more than capable of enduring the long-term exposure to the rigors of space.