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For the third time, an X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is back in space. The Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-1) was launched on Dec. 11 and will soon be circling the planet in low Earth orbit for the United States Air Force.
The X-37B looks look like a mini, unmanned space shuttle, but it has the heart of a true space plane. It’s launched like a satellite and rides into low Earth orbit inside the fairing of a rocket - it can do everything a satellite can do and more.
OTV-1 completed its first mission, which lasted approximately 220 days, in December 2010. The vehicle made history when became the United States' first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own.
The second vehicle, OTV-2, broke records earlier this year when it completed a 469-day mission on June 16. Previously, the longest space shuttle mission was made by Columbia at 17 days, 15 hours. Discovery flew the most missions at 29, with an accumulated total of 365 days on-orbit. OTV-2 has exceeded both.
The X-37B can operate in low Earth orbit, and then re-enter the atmosphere and land on auto-pilot at the push of a button. The versatile test vehicle glides in and lands like a plane at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It’s an example of the kind of innovation that Boeing has been doing for decades to advance aviation, space systems and now unmanned vehicles.
A number of innovations were demonstrated for the first time in space aboard the X-37B. While the experimental space plane uses a similar lifting body design as the space shuttle, the X-37B was built using composites that are lighter than traditional aluminum. It also uses a new generation of high-temperature wing leading-edge tiles made of toughened uni-piece fibrous refractory oxidation-resistant ceramic also called (TUFROC), as compared to the shuttle, which used more traditional carbon carbon.
The X-37B uses silica tiles that are toughened with uni-piece fibrous insulation and are much more durable than the first-generation shuttle tiles. It is also the first space vehicle to use advanced conformal reusable insulation blankets.
The on-board avionics were designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions -- and the space plane has no hydraulics. The flight controls and brakes move electromechanically.
With two highly successful missions completed, and a third just beginning, the versatile X-37B continues to demonstrate that access to space can be affordable, efficient, and repeated.