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Air Force extending mission of mysterious X-37B space plane

The pilotless X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle, has been circling the Earth for nine months. Air Force officials have offered few details about the mission.

November 30, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times

The Air Force is extending the mission of an experimental robotic space plane that's been circling the Earth for nine months.

The pilotless X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle, was launched in March from Cape Canaveral, Fla. At the time, Air Force officials offered few details about the mission, saying that the space plane simply provided a way to test new technologies in space, such as satellite sensors and other components.

The military did confirm that the 29-foot space plane was slated to land 270 days later, which would be Wednesday, on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara. Now the Air Force has announced that the mission has been extended, but the exact landing date has not yet been set.

"We initially planned for a nine-month mission, which we are roughly at now, but we will continue to extend the mission as circumstances allow," Lt. Col Tom McIntyre, the spacecraft's systems program director, said in a statement. "Keeping the X-37 in orbit will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission."

The X-37B was built in tight secrecy by Boeing Co.'s Space and Intelligence Systems unit in Huntington Beach. Engineering work was done at the company's facilities in Huntington Beach and Seal Beach. Other parts were made at its satellite-making plant in El Segundo.

Some industry analysts have theorized that because of its clandestine nature, the X-37B could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe. The Pentagon has repeatedly said that the space plane is simply a "test bed" for other technologies.

"We are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process," McIntyre said.

The X-37B now orbiting the Earth is the second launched by the military. The first X-37B was launched in April 2010, and it landed 224 days later on its own — fully automated — at Vandenberg.

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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