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After more than a year in orbit, the US Air Force’s clandestine mini-space shuttle will likely land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California sometime this week, with some reports saying it could land as early as today, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. It has been in orbit since March 5, 2011, but like the first X-37B mission that flew in 2010 and spent 224 days in space, the Air Force has not issued any information of what the craft is doing or where it is orbiting.
After launch it had a 331 km (206-mile)orbit inclined 42.8 degrees to the equator, but in the summer of 2011 the orbit was raised slightly to 337 km (209 miles).
The craft looks like a miniature space shuttle, and is 8.8 meters (29 feet) long with a wing span of 4.2 meters (14 feet). It can weigh up to about 5,000 kg (11,000 pounds) fueled for launch. The reported in-space design life is 270 days, but sources say that good performance on this mission enabled ground controllers to keep it aloft significantly longer.
America's classified X-37B spaceplane is probably spying on China, according to a report in Spaceflight magazine. The unpiloted vehicle was launched into orbit by the US Air Force in March last year and has yet to return to Earth. The Pentagon has steadfastly refused to discuss its mission but amateur space trackers have noted how its path around the globe is nearly identical to China's spacelab, Tiangong-1. There is wide speculation that the X-37B is eavesdropping on the laboratory.
"Space-to-space surveillance is a whole new ball game made possible by a finessed group of sensors and sensor suites, which we think the X-37B may be using to maintain a close watch on China's nascent space station," said Spaceflight editor Dr David Baker.
Helium-3 (He3) is gas that has the potential to be used as a fuel in future nuclear fusion power plants. There is very little helium-3 available on the Earth. However, there are thought to be significant supplies on the Moon. Several governments have subsequently signalled their intention to go to the Moon to mine helium-3 as a fuel supply. Such plans may come to fruition within the next two to three decades and trigger a new Space Race.
As reported in an Artemis Project paper, about 25 tonnes of helium-3 -- or a fully-loaded Space Shuttle cargo bay's worth -- could power the United States for a year. This means that helium-3 has a potential economic value in the order of $3bn a tonne -- making it the only thing remotely economically viable to consider mining from the Moon given current and likely-near-future space travel technologies and capabilities.
The orbit for Tiangong 1 was pulled from the U.S. military's Space Track website
Originally posted by JMech
Found a good write up on space.com. There's a picture of it at the end of the article that to me shows a hatch on the nose of the craft. Anybody else?