The Ultimate Drone – X-37B Unmanned Space Vehicle
After more than 700 days in space, the world’s ultimate drone, the Air Force’s X-37B unmanned space vehicle, landed at NASA ‘s Kennedy Space Center on May 7, 2017. Beginning in 2010, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has now flown four successful missions.
The X-37B OTV program aims to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold; reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.
OTV Space Project
The Department of Defense’s Orbital Test Vehicle initiative is being led by the U.S. Air Force which uses extensive contractor and government investments in the X-37 program by the Air Force, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for continued development and testing of a long-duration, reusable space vehicle.
The original X-37 program which was started by NASA in 1999, continued until September 2004, and at which time NASA transferred the program to DARPA. NASA’s vision was to build two vehicles, an Approach and Landing Test Vehicle (ALTV) and an Orbital Vehicle. In September 2006 DARPA was able to complete the ALTV portion of the X-37 program through successful execution of a series of captive carry and free flight tests. While NASA’s X-37 Orbital Vehicle was never built, the design was the starting point for the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle program.
The first launch of the X-37B was in April 2010 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Missions 1 through 3, (OTV-1, OTV-2, OTV-3) all landed successfully at Vandenberg AFB, Calif. While after 718 in orbit, the forth mission, OTV-4, successfully landed at Kennedy Space Center, Fla. in May 2017. These four OTV missions have spent a total of 2,085 days in orbit, testing the X-37B’s reusable flight, reentry and landing technologies as well as operating experiments to benefit the national space community.
The X-37B unmanned Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends, and lands horizontally on a runway. The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA’s Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further inspection and analysis, but with an on-orbit time of 270 days or greater, the X-37B can stay in space for much longer.
Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, advanced propulsion systems, advanced materials and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.
Height: 9 feet, 6 inches (2.9 meters)
Length: 29 feet, 3 inches (8.9 meters)
Wingspan: 14 feet, 11 inches (4.5 meters)
Launch Weight: 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms)
Power: Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries
Launch Vehicle: United Launch Alliance Atlas V (501)
Source: Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
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