Space plane to make house calls for satellite repairs

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle will land autonomously on runway after re-entry

The Air Force this week will test the flight capabilities of a new generation of unmanned space planes designed to transport satellite components to space, reports John Reed at Defense News.

The service plans to launch on April 22 the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into space from Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla. The test vehicle’s mission is to “conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment where it will need to function,” the Air Force said in an April 19 statement.

Although the initial flight is only meant to test the plane’s performance in the highly stressful environment of space, it is intended to lead to the advent of so-called plug-and-play experiments in space, Air Force officials said.

“The OTV has the potential to revolutionize how the Air Force operates in space by making space operations more aircraft like,” said David Hamilton, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

The initial series of flights will help determine vehicle performance and other important matters such as how quickly it can be readied for re-flight, Hamilton said.

Another likely purpose of the initial tests is to evaluate the OTV’s autonomous re-entry technology, said Laura Grego, on a scientists’ blog.

The OTV is not at all like the Shuttle, Grego notes. It weighs only 5 tons (about 1/20th the mass of the shuttle), carries no people, and is launched on an expendable Atlas 5 rocket, rather than with its own engine and reusable boosters as is the Shuttle. It can stay aloft for 270 days.

The service intends to make the program operational if the X-37B can prove its utility and cost effectiveness during tests of its advanced guidance, navigation, thermal protection and avionics systems, Air Force officials said.

“While the X-37B is on orbit, it is like most satellites in that there are operators monitoring its telemetry and sending commands to maintain the health of the spacecraft,” said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the X-37B systems program director. “There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it," he added.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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