Third X-37B Launch Expected, Few Details

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The Air Force has announced that one of its 29-foot-long X-37B unmanned space planes will launch on another classified mission in October and this time has left some faint hints of what the aircraft's activities might involve. Previous missions of X-37B space planes ended in December 2010, after 255 days, and in June 2012, after 469 days. Both of those flights landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and little is known about what the aircraft did while in orbit. Air Force spokesperson Maj. Tracy Bunko has indicated the X-37B helps the Air Force test how new payload systems and technologies perform in space. It also brings those payloads back for detailed inspection, providing "significantly better learning than can be achieved by remote telemetry alone." The next trip may not return to Vandenberg.

The X-37B has launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral and will do so again in October, but this time, the Air Force says it is considering a landing at NASA Kennedy Space Center. The move could save money by making better use of previous investments and infrastructure available there. The exact date of launch is dependent on weather and technical factors. The Air Force has two X-37B vehicles and the one used for the October mission will be the same vehicle that took the first trip in 2010. Each vehicle is 29 feet long and 15 feet wide. It houses a payload bay similar in size to that of a pickup truck. The vehicle is a Boeing product operated by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.