Sunday, May 7, 2017

Air Force's Secretive X-37B Mini Shutle Lands In Florida


CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida --For the first time ever, U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B 'mini-shuttle' landed at the former space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Sunday morning.

Although the precise landing time was not disclosed, sonic booms were heard over Brevard County on Florida's Space Coast around 7:45 a.m. Eastern Time.


In 2014, Boeing began consolidation of its X-37B operations at Kennedy Space Center by converting the former space shuttle facility, OPF-1, to a facility that would enable the U.S. Air Force to land, recover, refurbish, and re-launch the reusable unmanned space plane.

Prior to consolidation, the 29-foot-long X-37B had launched from both Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida - but the space plane only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

This fourth mission (OTV-4) of the X-37B broke the record for the most time the space plane has spent in space on Sunday, May 7, 2017. The previous X-37B record of 674 days in space was set by the third mission (OTV-3) which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 12, 2012 and landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base on October 17, 2014. The X-37B was originally designed for orbital missions lasting 270 days.


"Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, the 45th SW commander. “Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”



X-37B Mission Durations

Mission  Days
OTV-1     224
OTV-2     468
OTV-3     674
OTV-4     718


What Was Aboard This X-37B?

While most payloads are classified, the U.S. Air Force made an unusual disclosure that OTV-4 had a Hall thruster experiment aboard.


A Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon. While producing comparatively low thrust relative to conventional rocket engines, Hall thrusters provide significantly greater specific impulse, or fuel economy. This results in increased payload carrying capacity and a greater number of on-orbit maneuvers for a spacecraft using Hall thrusters rather than traditional rocket engines.




Another unclassified payload that is aboard the X-37B is an experiment for NASA that exposed almost 100 different materials samples to a space environment for more than 200 days.

Image and video credit: USAF