Drones in space? The US Air Force is preparing for the return of its automated space craft after 453-days and counting in orbit. Here it is, the X-37.
The robotic X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, is due to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California sometime in early to mid-June, depending on weather and other technical factors.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 2, or OTV-2, launched March 5, 2011. That means it’s been in orbit for more than twice the duration of the orbit-hopping inaugural mission of its predecessor, OTV-1.
It’s also been up there much longer than anyone anticipated — the mission was originally planned for 270 days, only a few weeks longer than the 225-day mission of the first flight. Why so long? Some have speculated that it might be spying on the Chinese space station Tiangong. Or maybe the Air Force is just trying to squeeze out all possible value from an experimental spacecraft in a time of relative budget austerity.
We still don’t know what the 29-foot-long X-37B has been doing up there. In the wake of the first X-37B mission, and with its pickup-bed-sized payload bay, analysts theorized it could be a commando transport, a bomber or an orbital spy. It could launch, repair or reposition U.S. satellites in low orbit. It could carry sensors. It could even sneak up and disable or steal enemy satellites.