A top secret robotic space plane developed by the U.S. Air Force was launched earlier today, Tues. Dec 11. The lift off of the new plane marks the third space mission for the Air Force, which started launching place in 2010. The plane left earth earlier this afternoon around 1:00 p.m. EST from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) in Florida.
Since its development, the super secret plane has gone by many names including X-37B and Orbital test Vehicle-3, or OTV-3 for short. While in space, the plane will be work on autopilot and will carry on board cargo. Despite a new missions, the X-37B plane is actually not a new spacecraft, but instead the same plane that was used in 2010 for the first mission, which was called OTV-1.
The first Air Force space mission, OTV-1, lasted 224 days from April to December 2010. The plane eventually landed via autopilot at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The OTV-2 mission wrapped up this past June when a different X-37B plane touched down at Vandenberg after 469 days in outer space.
The OTV-3 mission was expected to commence several months ago. However, a stage engine did not perform up to par during the launch of a Global Positional System satellite in early October. Following the failure, an accident investigation board worked to figure out why the stage engine had not worked properly and how they could fix it.
During their investigation, the accident investigation board found that a fuel leak had occurred in a thruster when the first engine was started during the GPS launch in October. The United Launch Alliance, which is owned by Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company, helped get the OTV-3 mission back on track and eventually cleared the space plane for take-off.
The two space planes used for the X-37B program were crafted by the Boeing Government Space Systems. Both planes are 29 feet long by 15 feet wide. Previously, the planes have landed at Vandenberg in California, however, after the new mission is completed, the vehicle may touch down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Landing the plane at the Kennedy Space Center, a short distance from its Cape Canaveral launch location would minimize the cost of transporting the plane from California to back Florida after landing.
One-fourth the size of the real space shuttle, the X-37B has captured the imaginations of everyone from amateur satellite trackers to potential military rivals. The X-37B can orbit Earth for months, then re-enter the atmosphere and land autonomously.
The X-37B space program is currently overseen by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which aims to develop new, promising means of support and weapons for the Department of Defense. The Rapid Capabilities Office is reportedly developing the space planes in order to, “demonstrate a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the United States Air Force,” according to an Air Force fact sheet.