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Boeing X-37B unmanned spacecraft successfully completes first flight


December 7, 2010

The X-37B after landing on Dec. 3 (Boeing photo)

The X-37B after landing on Dec. 3 (Boeing photo)

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Until now the only space vehicle capable of returning to Earth - in a controlled manner anyway - was the Space Shuttle. With that craft scheduled to be retired from service next year the U.S. Air Force's Boeing X-37 program is focused on demonstrating a next generation unmanned reusable spaceplane. On April 22 this year the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. On December 3, after an experimental test mission lasting over 220 days, the craft successfully de-orbited and landed safely at Vandenberg Air Force Base, making it the United States' first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own.

The objectives of the X-37B test platform include space exploration, risk reduction, and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies that could enable future space missions. The craft is designed to operate in low-earth orbit, 110 to 500 miles (177 to 805 km) above the Earth at a nominal speed of about 17,500 mph (28,164 km/h). Although its design borrows heavily from the Space Shuttle, with the same lifting body design and a similar landing profile, the X-37B is just one-fourth the size of the Shuttle, coming in at 29 ft 3 in (8.9 m) long with a wing span of 14 ft 11 in (4.5 m).

Instead of the traditional aluminum, it was built using lighter composite structures and the carbon-carbon wing leading-edge tiles, which were the cause of the Columbia disaster, have been replaced with a new generation of high-temperature wing leading-edge tiles made from toughened uni-piece fibrous refractory oxidation-resistant ceramic (TUFROC). The craft also uses toughened uni-piece fibrous insulation (TUFI) impregnated silica tiles, which are significantly more durable than the first generation tiles used by the Space Shuttle.

There are no hydraulics onboard the X-37B with flight controls and brakes instead using electromechanical actuation. Additionally, all the craft's avionics are designed to automate all de-orbit and landing functions. Boeing says the success of the X-37B's inaugural mission demonstrates that unmanned space vehicles can be sent into orbit and safely recovered. The long duration of the test flight was to prove that the X-37B is capable of long-duration operations and to understand the long-term effects on system components, such as structure and future payloads.

"This marks a new era in space exploration, and we look forward to the launch of the second vehicle in 2011. By combining the best of aircraft and spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle, Boeing has delivered an unprecedented capability to the RCO (Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office)," said Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Experimental Systems and program director for the X-37B.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

\"The craft also uses toughened uni-piece fibrous insulation (TUFI) impregnated silica tiles, which are significantly more durable than the first generation tiles used by the Space Shuttle.\"

TUFI? Um, no... that would be TUFIST... Toughened Uni-piece Fibrous Impregnated Silica Tiles, get it? Ha ha, to go along with TUFROC


It is amazing how stubborn scientist can be. It was proven there is an alternate way of escaping the atmosphere and re-entering w/o contending with the re-entry heat. Yet this method (which has proven to be quite dangerous) is still employed!

This different re-entry method was done by the privately owned team of Spaceshipone in 2004 several times and is now (as incorrectly stated about the space shuttle being the ONLY space vehicle that returns to earth in a controlled manner) building and testing another spaceship (spaceshiptwo) that will take private paid customers to space (I think in 2011!).

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SpaceShipOne


P.S. yes, I am a fan of Burt Rutan... ;-)


mquinn6 - You clearly know nothing about space.

escaping the atmosphere isn\'t the problem, its the speed that is the problem. Spaceship One (as with SS2) go into sub-orbit, while cool and impressive, its a far cry from orbit. To get into orbit you have to be going around 17,500 mph. Burt Rutan\'s spaceship can only go a couple thousand mph. When your going orbital velocity and you are re-entering the atmosphere, THAT is when the heat climbs, as high as 2300 °F.

I\'m also a fan of Burt Rutan, I remember closely watching a X-Prize unfold, and hoped they would be the winners. SS2 is a logical step, and SS3...MIGHT go orbital.


29\' is the size of a smallish motorhome. It\'s really good they got it unmanned, now nobody has to risk their neck getting it to and from orbit. You know what, space is just too hostile for people. But we can make really good robots for space. Speaking for myself, I like my 100 km of overhead air bag protection, thanks!

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