Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Air Force says it's extending mission of mysterious X-37B

As our November 24 article speculated, the LA times is now confirming the Air Force is extending the mission of the secretive X-37B, which now has been in orbit for 270 days.

Air Force says it's extending mission of mysterious X-37B - latimes.com:
The Air Force is extending the mission of an experimental robotic space plane that’s been circling the Earth for the last nine months.

The pilotless X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle, was launched in March from Cape Canaveral, Fla. At the time, Air Force officials offered few details about the mission, saying that the space plane simply provided a way to test new technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components."

The military did confirm that the 29-foot space plane was slated to land 270 days later, which would be Wednesday, on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara. Now the Air Force has announced that the mission has been extended, but the exact landing date has not yet been set.

“We initially planned for a nine-month mission, which we are roughly at now, but we will continue to extend the mission as circumstances allow,” Lt. Col Tom McIntyre, the spacecraft's systems program director, said in a statement. “Keeping the X-37 in orbit will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission.


Is it possible to see the X-37B land?  
The X-37B's primary landing site is Vandenberg AFB on the California coast north of Los Angles. The backup landing site is Edwards AFB, about 150 miles to the East. While both site's are restricted, there is public access nearby.

Assuming the X-37B uses a path similar to the Space Shuttle, an approach Vandenberg AFB's runway 30 would probably come from the west-south-west on the upward node of it's orbit, fly just north of the runway and make a sweeping 240 degree turn to the right around the heading alignment circle to align with runway 30.  Observers in Lompoc and along California Hwy 1, east of Vandenberg would probably be able to spot the craft, given the right conditions.

An approach from the west-north-west on the downward node of it's orbit would probably fly to the west of the runway, over the ocean, and make 160 degree left turn to align with runway 30. Again observers in Lompoc should be able to spot it under the right conditions.

Right now the upward node of the X-37B's orbit passes over Vandenberg AFB about an hour before dawn each day. In another 10 days or so it will passing over around dawn, prime viewing time. But catching a glimpse of it gets more interesting.

Because of the X-37B's cross-range ability, the distance it can fly to the right or left of it's orbital path while reentering, the craft probably has landing opportunities on 4 or 5 consecutive orbits each day. That's a 6 hour window! So it's going to be tough to spot.  Best advice, if you're near Lompoc and hear a sonic boom in the morning hours, look towards Vandenberg's runway and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of OTV-2's landing.