The U.S. Air Force successfully launched the top secret Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), also known as the X-37B and commonly described as an unmanned space plane that can re-enter the earth's atmosphere. United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, announced the OTV-1 was launched on an Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Although an artist's rendering of the spacecraft in the OTV mission overview provided by ULA resembles a pint-size space shuttle, the Air Force has released few details about the classified project, or when it will return, other than to term the robotic vehicle a "flexible space test platform" that would conduct various experiments to allow "satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment."
According to a report in Space magazine, Air Force deputy under secretary for space programs Gary Payton admitted during a conference call they can't be sure when the device will return to Earth. "This is a new way for the Air Force to conduct on-orbit experiments," he said. "In all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit demonstrations."
While the concept was initially developed at NASA in 1999, the project was transferred due to budgetary issues to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) in 2004, then to the Air Force in 2006. Payton took pains to defend the highly secretive nature of the project and put to rest speculation that the mission has military ends. "Actual on-orbit activities we do classify...for the experimental payloads that are on-orbit with the X-37," the magazine quoted Payton saying. "Truthfully, I don't know how this could be called 'weaponization' of space."
The X-37B is described in the mission overview as the United States' "newest and most advanced" spacecraft, with objectives for the launch listed as risk reduction, space experimentation and development for long duration and reusable spacecraft technology.
"Key objectives of the first flight include demonstration and validation of guidance, navigation and control systems to include fault tolerant, autonomous re-entry and landing as well as lightweight high-temperature structures and landing gear," the mission overview explained. "On-orbit tests of the thermal management, power control and distribution, and attitude control subsystems are also planned objectives."
The mission was launched aboard an Atlas V 501 5.4m fairing configuration. ULA said this entailed using a single common core booster powered by the RD-180 engine and a single RL-10A upper stage engine. ULA's next launch, currently scheduled for May 20, is the Air Force's first Block II-F navigation satellite for the Global Positioning System (GPS) aboard a Delta IV rocket. ULA reported Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) would be the primary landing site (whenever that might be is anyone's guess), with Edwards AFB as a backup.
"ULA is proud to have played a critical role in the success of this important test mission of the Orbital Test Vehicle," said ULA's vice president for Atlas programs Mark Wilkins said in a statement. "This was a tremendous launch campaign highlighted by close teamwork between the U.S. Air Force, the ULA launch team, and our many mission partners that made today's successful launch possible."