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Feature Story

X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

Boeing

Designed to be launched like a satellite and land like an airplane, the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (shown here after landing) was built by Boeing for the U.S. Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office. Program officials say it is an affordable, reusable space vehicle.

Boeing's record-breaking X-37B space plane

With the successful return of a second X-37B Orbital Test vehicle (OTV-2) on June16, Boeing’s unmanned space plane continues to break records.

The vehicle, built by Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems, just completed a 469-day mission. Designed to launch like a satellite and land like an airplane, the OTV-2 holds the record for the longest mission of a reusable space vehicle. Previously, the longest Space Shuttle mission was made by Columbia in 17 days, 15 hours. Discovery flew the most missions at 39, with an accumulated total of 365 days on orbit. OTV-2 has exceeded both by flying 469 days.

OTV-1, launched in April 2010, became the United States’ first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own when it arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Dec. 3, 2010. Previously, the Space Shuttle was the only space vehicle capable of returning to earth.

“We congratulate the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the success of this mission,” said Paul Rusnock, vice president of Government Space Systems, a unit of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems. “We look forward to OTV-1 beginning its second mission later this year.”

“We congratulate the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the success of this mission. We look forward to OTV-1 beginning its second mission later this year.”

At 29 feet in length and weighing 11,000 pounds, the X-37B operates in low-earth orbit, 110 to 500 miles above earth. The vehicle features many elements that mark a first in space use. The X-37B is one-fourth the size of the Space Shuttle, and relies upon the same family of lifting body design. It also features a similar landing profile. The vehicle was built using lighter composite structures, rather than traditional aluminum. A new generation of high-temperature wing leading-edge tiles will also debut on the X-37B. These toughened uni-piece ceramic tiles replace the carbon carbon wing leading edge segments on the Space Shuttle. The X-37B also uses toughened uni-piece silica tiles, which are significantly more durable than the first generation tiles used by the Space Shuttle. The X-37B was also the first to use advanced conformal reusable insulation (CRI) blankets.

All avionics on the X-37B are designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions. Additionally, there is no hydraulics onboard the X-37B; flight controls and brakes use electromechanical actuation.

The X-37B orbital test vehicle program dates back to 1999, when Boeing’s Phantom Works unit, NASA and DARPA began researching two vehicles, an approach and landing test vehicle (ALTV) and an orbital vehicle. The ALTV was designed to validate flight dynamics and extend the flight envelope beyond the low speed/low altitude tests conducted by NASA from 1998 through 2001 on the X-40A, a sub-scale version of the X-37 developed by Air Force Research Labs. DARPA completed the ALTV in September 2006 by successfully executing a series of captive carry and free flight tests from the Scaled Composites White Knight Aircraft. The X-37 vehicle envisioned by NASA was never built, however its design formed the basis for the Air Force’s X-37B orbital test vehicle program.