The robotic X-37B mini-shuttle is slated to lift off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Friday atop an Atlas 5 rocket, weather permitting. Its launch window opens at 3:39 p.m. EST (2039 GMT), according to the launch provider United Launch Alliance, which is overseeing the flight.
This will mark the second space mission for the Air Force’s X-37B space plane program — but the first for this particular plane. It is the second X-37B spacecraft built for the Air Force by Boeing and carries the name Orbital Test Vehicle 2, or OTV-2.
The first X-37B spacecraft launched in April 2010 and returned to Earth in December after an apparently successful test flight, though the details of that mission – like this upcoming flight – are classified. The first X-37B mission lasted 225 days. [Photos: First Flight of the X-37B Space Plane]
Current forecasts for Friday’s X-37B launch try predict a 70 percent chance that bad weather may delay the flight, Air Force official have said.
A small robotic space shuttle
With its blunt nose and stubby wings, the unmanned X-37B spacecraft resembles a miniature version of NASA’s space shuttles. The vehicle was originally developed as part of a NASA project that was shifted to the military when funding ran dry.
The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is shown inside its payload fairing during encapsulation at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla., ahead of a planned April 2010 launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The spacecraft is about 29 feet (almost 9 meters) long and 14 feet wide (nearly 4.5 meters), with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. It is designed to launch vertically inside the nose cone of a rocket, stay in orbit for months at a time, and then land horizontally on a runway like a space shuttle.
But unlike NASA’s shuttles, the X-37B space plane does everything autonomously. It also has a solar array that is deployed from its payload bay to generate power during its months-long stay in orbit [Infographic: The X-37B Space Plane]
“There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it,” Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager in the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said before the first X-37B mission blasted off last year.
The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office oversees the X-37B space plane program for the U.S. military.