Today, the Orbital Test Vehicle-4 (OTV-4) landed at the Kennedy Space Center, generating a sonic boom across central Florida. The OTV-4 was the fourth mission for the X-37B program.

This X-37B flight is a 2-year secret military mission with an unmanned mini-space shuttle that orbited the Earth. All of them had been launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The U.S Air Force announced this morning that the OTV-4 landed safely.

Image credit: ABC News
Image credit: ABC News

The X-37B is the first vehicle with the ability to return experiments to Earth for further investigation

The fourth X-37B mission was launched in May 2015, landing and ending today. All of them had been launched from Florida; however, the three first shuttles arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.r. This became the longest fight in the program since the air force wants to consolidate these operations on Florida’s Coast. Therefore, landings like the one that happened today might be repeated several times at the SLF. According to the Air Force Public Affairs Office. The X37B mini shuttle:

“It 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.”

The shuttle is 29 feet long and 9 feet high. Its wingspan is almost 15 feet. It weighs 11,000 pounds, so it is quite small. The shuttle is powered by Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries.

Image credit: Collect Space
Image credit: Collect Space

The X37B spent 718 days flying around planet Earth

There were rumors that the X-37B mini-shuttle would return to Earth in February. However, that didn’t happen until today, after traveling for 718 days around the planet. It finally landed at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, for the first time, causing a sonic boom that was felt in the entire Central Florida area, even in Tampa and Fort Myers.

Brigadier General Wayne Monteith said the team is proud and happy that the mini shuttle landed successfully and that all the efforts were worthwhile. He stated that they are pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and that the data collected was relevant for the scientific community.

“Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers,” Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander, said in a statement. “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.”

The total time reached in space by the four flights reaches 2085 days now.

The next launch is expected to occur before the year ends

The four flights have been performed by two vehicles, also known as OTVs, or orbital test vehicles. OTV-1 flew the first, and the third mission and the OTV-2 flew the remaining two missions. How the whole missions were deployed, there is no certainty for it still is a classified program. Therefore, there are little details about the missions and what they accomplished. It is still unknown if the spacecraft can be used again for the next mission, which is expected to be launched at the end of 2017. There is no clue to explain how the shuttle manages to stay in space for so long.

NASA started the original idea for this small unmanned orbiters, and it was built by Boeing’s Phantom Works division. However, then the program was relocated in the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, in 2004.

In 2006, the Air Force was charged with the program and finally in 2010 the initial orbital test of the program took off.

Then the second vehicle was launched on March 5, 2011, spending 469 days in orbit to finally land on June 16, 2012, in California. The third flight occurred on December 11, 2012, and it arrived in California on October 17, 2014. Therefore, it was 675 days in the space.

The X-37B mini-shuttle is made up with lightweight materials. The second one has improved wing insulation and tougher heat-shield tiles that are more durable.

According to Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, with the X37B they demonstrated the flexibility needed to advance in space. He said that the ability of the OTV to land and launch from the same place is ideal to develop new space technologies.

“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; and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry, and landing,” Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Given the mysteries behind the program, it has been suggested that these vehicles are also taking part in the United States’ fleet of spy satellites. However, some experts outside the Air Force consider there is nothing aggressive behind the operation performed by the X-37B while being in orbit.

Source: CBS News