One small step for unmanned

  • 03-May-2010 10:53 EDT

The Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is shown during fairing encapsulation at the Astrotech launch processing facility near Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

In late April, Boeing literally launched its X-37B, an Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) developed for the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, where the project—which began in 1999—landed in 2004 after earlier joint research work by Boeing, NASA, and DARPA.

With a mass of 11,000 lb at launch and measuring 29.25 ft long with a wing span of just under 15 ft, the Boeing-built X-37B will validate the technologies necessary for long-duration reusable space vehicles with autonomous re-entry and landing capabilities.

The OTV hit the skies courtesy of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket into a low-Earth orbit from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex 41. The Atlas V is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 booster engine and a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A-4-2 upper-stage engine that delivers 22,300 lb of thrust. Jim Maus, the Director of Expendable Propulsion Programs at P&WR said that the launch of the OTV constituted the third launch of the RL10 in 2010 and is the 408th production-model RL10 to fly.

The Atlas V Common Core booster is powered by the RD-180 engine delivering nearly 1 million lb of thrust. P&WR says that the RD-180 is the only liquid oxygen-kerosene fueled engine with an oxygen-rich staged combustion cycle flying in the U.S. today.

According to Dennis Muilenburg, President and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space, and Security, "The X-37B has the potential to bring to space the flexibility that unmanned systems provide warfighters and combatant commanders today," adding that the OTV has the ability to be launched into space and then land on Earth on its own. The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA's Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth for inspection and analysis.

The OTV, about a quarter the size of the space shuttles and powered by gallium arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries, will be used to demonstrate a reliable, reusable unmanned space test platform for the USAF, with the first flight demonstrating "the readiness of the X-37B to begin serving the Air Force as it continues to investigate ways to make space access more routine, affordable, and responsive," said Paul Rusnock, Boeing Vice President of Experimental Systems and Program Director for the X-37B.

Program objectives include space experimentation, risk reduction, and concept-of-operations development for reusable space-vehicle technologies.

Some of Boeing's other space-based unmanned vehicle programs have included support to the Air Force Research Laboratory's X-40 program, NASA's X-37 program, and DARPA's X-37 approach, landing, and test vehicle program.

Boeing program management, engineering, test, and mission support functions for the OTV program are conducted at a number of Boeing's California sites, including Huntington Beach, Seal Beach, and El Segundo. Re-entry and recovery activities for the OTV will be at either Vandenberg AFB or Edwards AFB.

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