U.S. To Flight-Test Unmanned Space Plane This Week

Published: 19 Apr 2010 17:30

The U.S. Air Force this week will start flight-testing the first of a new generation of unmanned space planes designed to ferry satellite components to-and-from space.

On April 21, the service will launch the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into space from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida to "conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently" ferried in-and-out of orbit, according to an April 19 service announcement.

While this week's flight is only meant to test the plane's performance in the highly stressful environment of space, it will eventually lead to the advent of so called plug-and-play experiments in space, according to the announcement.

"OTV has the potential to revolutionize how the Air Force operates in space by making space operations more aircraft like," said David Hamilton, director of the service's Rapid Capabilities Office.

The service is already discussing moving the program toward operational if the X-37B can prove its utility and cost effectiveness during tests of its advanced guidance, navigation, thermal protection and avionics systems, as well as high temperature structures and seals, according to the announcement.

The service has been eyeing various ways to install cheap, flexible systems onto its satellites as a way to quickly respond to changing mission needs under the Defense Department's operationally responsive space concept.

The space plane can stay aloft for 270 days before automatically re-entering Earth's atmosphere and landing like an airplane, according to the Air Force.

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