Officials from the United States Air Force (USAF) have recently announced that their secretive space plane, the X-37B, will return home soon, possibly in the next week or so. They said that they could not divulge the exact date of arrival for security reasons.
This particular X-37B, named Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2), was launched to space aboard an Atlas V delivery system on March 5, 2011. The spacecraft was originally developed to spend a lot of time conducting autonomous operations in space.
The flight – the vehicle's second – was meant to assess this capability. The payload and mission objectives for this spacecraft are classified, and the USAF has been keeping mum about them throughout the duration of the mission.
When USAF representatives announced that OTV-2 would be returning home, they only mentioned that it would do so in the “early- to mid-June timeframe.” In about a week or so, that time will be up, analysts believe. The vehicle will most likely land at the Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB), in California.
The Edwards Air Force Base (EAFB), also in California, may serve as a backup landing side, Space reports. The X-37B is a design modeled after the now-retired NASA space shuttles, only at a smaller scale. Two of these spacecraft could easily fit inside a shuttle cargo bay.
The vehicle is 8.8 meters (2.9 feet) long and 4.5 meters (15 feet) wide, and its entire payload bay can hold about as much cargo as a pickup truck bed. It is powered by a single solar array, and was designed to spend 270+ days in orbit.
Thus far, OTV-2 spend two time as many days in space as OTV-1. At 465 days, it is the undisputed leader in space presence time of all space planes the USAF deployed to orbit. OTV-1 only flew for 225 days, between April and December, 2010.
According to USAF officials, the purpose of the mission is to test new satellite technologies, to be deployed on upcoming generations of spacecraft. However, the exact nature of experiments being conducted aboard the X-378B remains a mystery.
Even though the USAF is not publishing any details about its space plane's orbital paths, amateur astronomers are providing constant updates about the orbits it occupies. According to some interpretations, the vehicle may be spying on Afghanistan and other countries in the Middle East.
X-37 began as a NASA project more than 13 years ago, but was since moved to the US Department of Defense, and then to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Eventually, it was taken on by the USAF, Space