Who Shrank the Shuttle?

If you see a picture of the X-37B unmanned spaceplane, you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a slightly modified Space Shuttle. If you look closer you realise it’s a mini-version of a Shuttle, around 9m (29ft) in length and 5 tonnes (11,000 pounds), with a payload of your average pickup truck.

Here is a picture of it in its hanger [CREDIT: space.com].

 X-37B mini shuttle

Looks awesome. I like the V-shaped rear wings. Looking at this I’m thinking all that money spent in Shuttle development wasn’t as wasted as I thought.

Two have been built so far (reportedly), and one has been in orbit around Earth since December, although no one knows exactly what it’s doing up there.

The X-37B went into orbit on top of an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on December 11 2012. The current mission is designated Orbital Test Vehicle-3 (OTV-3), as the third classified mission under the US Air Force’s X-37B program.

The little robotic vehicle is on the USAF’s books as USA-240.

The vehicle lands on a strip, just like its bigger (defunct) cousin, but even more impressively it does so autonomously. Pretty cool, huh? I thought maybe I could sneak into the back in a spacesuit for some spacewalking next time it goes up, but then realised I could never hope to pack enough oxy-mix – the little craft was up in orbit for 469 days for OTV-2. That’s a long time to hold your breath.

OTV-2 ended on a special strip at Vandenberg  on June 16 last year, although the jury is out as to whether OTV-3 will end there or back at the good old shuttle strip at Kennedy Space Centre.

Anyone heard anything about what the X-37B’s doing up there?

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