The U.S. Air Force’s second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-2) landed successfully at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., early this morning after a record 469 days in space—more than double the time clocked up by the first vehicle, OTV-1.
Details of the mission remain secret, just as they were with the first OTV flight. Photos are expected to be released soon, however, presumably indicating the X-37B landed in reasonable condition. The Air Force, meanwhile, remains secretive about the mission, saying only that the Boeing-built X-37B conducted “on-orbit experiments.” In a short statement it says the vehicle provides “return capability” that allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs.”
The 29-ft.-long winged vehicle touched down at Vandenberg on June 16 at 5:48 a.m. Pacific time, marking the end of a 15-month mission that began with its launch on an Atlas 5 from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 5, 2011. The extended flight of OTV-2 also demonstrated upgrades and adaptations to the 15-ft.-wingspan spacecraft, which was designed to stay aloft for 270 days.
OTV prior to launch (USAF)
Prior to the launch, the Air Force said the mission would “build upon the OTV-1 on-orbit demonstration, validate and replicate initial testing and fine-tune the technical parameters of the vehicle tests.” However, all other pertinent details of the testing, and what would be performed in orbit, remain classified.
Vehicle specialists were concerned that, with this extended mission, features such as the pressurized tires could be compromised. One of the tires of the first OTV-1 was seen to be flat on landing, and there were worries that out-gassing could have been taking place over the course of the second flight. No word yet from Boeing or the armed service on what the exact condition of the vehicle was like on landing, so watch this space.
OTV-2 launches on March 5, 2011 (Guy Norris)