US military’s mini space shuttle lifts off

A prototype miniature space shuttle blasted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday for a demonstration run that could last as long as nine months.

The experimental vehicle, known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, lifted off at 10.46pm GMT. It is the second ship to be put in space under the US military’s X-37B programme.

The vehicles are smaller versions of Nasa’s space shuttle orbiters — 8,8m long, 4,3m across. The one-third scale spaceships are solar powered, unlike the space shuttles, and are not designed to carry people.

Like OTV-1, which returned from a 224-day mission on December 3, what OTV-2 will do in orbit, as well as any cargo or experiments that are aboard are classified.

They are intended to test technologies and processes for low-cost, quick-turnaround, reusable space vehicles, as well as serve as orbital testbeds for instruments that could be incorporated into future satellites.

Once operational, the X-37B could be used for a variety of missions including reconnaissance, in-space service and repair of satellites, deploying and retrieving spacecraft, and demonstrating new technologies, the Air Force said.

OTV-1 returned from flight in good condition, paving the way for launch of its sister ship with few modifications. A more detailed inspection and analysis of OTV-1 will be undertaken as part of its refurbishment.

OTV-1 has not yet been scheduled for a second launch, but the Air Force anticipates it will return to orbit.

No significant changes were made to OTV-2 as a result of the OTV-1 flight.

Minor tweaks include a reduction in the vehicle’s main landing gear tire pressure by about 15% to help avoid repeating the blown tire that OTV-1 experienced upon touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 3.

The reduced pressure should better accommodate imperfections in Vandenberg’s 4,5km runway, the Air Force said.

The vehicles were built by Boeing. – Reuters

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