At 7:52 p.m. last night, an Air Force Atlas 501 rocket shot the capsule enclosed X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into space from Cape Canaveral. Resembling a small space shuttle, the OTV was built in Boeing’s famed Phantom Works. The OTV will serve as an “on-orbit” laboratory for new sensors and other high-tech devices that will later be built into satellites. Its payload is highly classified, but the Air Force says test flights aboard the retrievable OTV will prove out new technologies before they are shot into space, to stay.
The 29 foot OTV is powered by a combination of lithium ion batteries and solar panels. Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, Gary Payton, told reporters: “Probably the most important demonstration is on the ground, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again.” The turnaround goal is 15 days. As for how long it will stay up there: “In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back for sure,” said Payton. “I don’t think we’ve set any specific goal, but I would think handling this bird more like an SR-71 and less like a routine space launch vehicle would be a good objective,”