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[i]It's been a long wait -- in some ways, more than 50 years -- but in April 2010, the U.S. Air Force is scheduled to launch an Atlas V booster from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the newest U.S. spacecraft, the unmanned X-37, to orbit. The X-37 embodies the Air Force's desire for an operational spaceplane, a wish that dates to the 1950s, the era of the rocket-powered X-15 and X-20. In other ways, though, the X-37 will be picking up where another U.S. spaceplane, NASA's space shuttle, leaves off.
Credit: U.S. Air Force/Air & Space
With a wingspan of 15 feet and a length of 27.5 feet, the X-37 looks like a tiny space shuttle. It has a blunt (though windowless) nose, and one rocket engine bell instead of the shuttle's three. Two cargo doors open just as the shuttle's do, revealing a four- by seven-foot bay. Like the shuttle, the X-37 was designed for low Earth orbits -- in the latter's case, altitudes of 125 to 575 miles. And the craft will fly like a shuttle, reentering the atmosphere with the orbiter's 40-degree nose-high attitude. After reentry, it will change to a 20-degree nose-down glide and, flying at up to 220 mph, land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with Edwards Air Force Base as an alternate.
But as for the period between launch and landing, no one, save for a select few in the Department of Defense, knows exactly what the little Boeing-built spaceplane will do, or for how long. The Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is running the program, says only that the orbital test version, the X-37B, will take a suite of next-generation technologies to orbit and will break new ground in the realm of launch, recovery, and reuse, all with an unmanned twist that the shuttle never offered...[/i]
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