What’s the Air Force’s mini-shuttle all about?

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The secretive Air Force X-37B mini-shuttle lands at Kennedy Space Center in May 2017.
U.S. Air Force

Weather permitting, a SpaceX Falcon 9 will lift off from Kennedy Space Center’s storied pad 39A as early as 9:50 a.m. Thursday, carrying the U.S. Air Force’s secretive mini-shuttle, the X-37B, into orbit on a clandestine mission. Lots of speculation and mystery surround the small unmanned robotic craft, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV. 

What is it? What is it capable of? Here’s a look at what we know about the semi-classified X-37B and its hush-hush missions.

The X-37B measures 29 feet long with a less than 15-foot wingspan and a payload bay the size of a pickup truck’s flatbed, making the whole vehicle about a quarter the size of one of NASA’s retired space shuttle orbiters. The concept for the X-37B started at NASA in 1999, was transferred to DARPA, the Pentagon agency responsible for technology development, in 2004 and then to the Air Force. The Air Force has two orbiters, each believed to have flown twice.

Nobody’s on board. The X-37B is fully robotic and not designed to carry people. It launches atop a rocket and lands autonomously on a runway. The first three missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, while the last touched down at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility on May 7.

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New for OTV-5: The Boeing-operated mini-shuttle will launch for the first time on a SpaceX rocket, whose booster will attempt to land back at Cape Canaveral less than 10 minutes after liftoff, triggering sonic booms. United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V lifted the previous four missions in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015. Proving the X-37B can launch on multiple rockets “will ensure a robust launch capability for our experiment designers,” the Air Force says.

The X-37B flies in low Earth orbit, up to about 250 miles high, and can stay there a long time. If this mission, OTV-5, follows the trend set by the first four, it would last more than two years. Each mission has flown progressively longer, from 224 days on the first (OTV-1) to 718 days on the last (OTV-4), for a four-mission total of 2,085 days in orbit.

The Air Force does not discuss the X-37B’s budget or exactly what it does in space, beyond a few publicly disclosed payloads from partners. The program’s mission, according to the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, is to perform “risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

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Analysts believe the X-37B most likely serves as a test bed for sensors and other technologies that may later find their way on to intelligence, surveillance or other satellites. It could enable some capability to be deployed more rapidly in a crisis.

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It’s possible, but unlikely, that the mini-shuttle could be used to refuel or repair aging or damaged spacecraft, potentially even return one to Earth. Or the same capabilities would allow it to inspect or disable an adversary’s satellite. The Secure World Foundation, however, rates this a low probability.

It is not a weapons system. Despite speculation and concern among nations like Russia and China, the Secure World Foundation rates as “zero” the possibility that the mini-shuttle might drop weapons from space or act as a missile itself. But before the last launch in 2015, Gen. John Hyten, then head of Air Force Space Command, declined to answer a question on “60 Minutes” about the program’s potential as a weapons platform, saying it was “for cool things.” “I’m not going to say what it’s going to become, because we’re experimenting,” Hyten said.

The Air Force says the upcoming mission will launch into, and land from, an orbit with a higher inclination, speculated to be about 43 degrees relative to the equator based on publicly available information about the launch trajectory. Mission managers did not elaborate on why other than saying the mission would “further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope” and advance the system’s performance and flexibility.

Publicly disclosed payloads for the upcoming mission include an Air Force Research Laboratory test of “experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment.” Some small satellites will share a ride to orbit on the Falcon 9 rocket.

Kennedy Space Center is the program’s home base, after California operations were consolidated there. Despite the program’s secrecy, high bay doors on two former space shuttle hangars proudly announce the location as “Home of the X-37B.” The last mission was the first to touch down on KSC’s former shuttle runway, miles from the launch site.

Contact Dean at 321-242-3668 or jdean@floridatoday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @flatoday_jdean.

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Launch Thursday

Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9

Mission: Fifth flight of Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-5)

Launch Time: 9:50 a.m.

Launch Window: to 2:55 p.m.

Launch Complex: 39A at Kennedy Space Center

Launch Weather: 50 percent favorable

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