A prototype of an advanced space plane by the U.S. Air Force will make it's long awaited landing in California as early as Friday morning.
In earth orbit for nearly 225 days, the space plane's exact landing time is secret and will likely be announced in the final hour of it's flight.
The 29-foot long, 11,000-pound Orbital Test Vehicle (X37-B) is a white winged craft with a similar style as the U.S. space shuttle.
Air Force Space Command informed this reporter tonight that the craft is expected back on earth overnight tonight.
"The OTV has the potential to revolutionize how the Air Force operates in space by making space operations more aircraft like and adding in the capability for returnable plug-and-play experiments," David Hamilton, Director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities office stated last week.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket lifted-off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on April 22, pushing the military spacecraft into earth orbit.
The X-37B has the ability to stay aloft for 270 days, the Air Force stated to this reporter.
During it's classified time in space, the robotic spacecraft was maneuvered around as ground controllers tested it's "advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics and high temperature structures and seals", Staff Sgt. Vanessa Young reported.
The orbital vehicle is powered via Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries.
Once the Air Force brings the reusable space plane home, it will reenter just like the space shuttle and will aim for a touchdown on runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB, located northeast of Los Angeles.
The belly of the vehicle is protected with a black thermal protection system designed by NASA. The X37-B has a wing span of 14 feet, 11 inches from tip to tip.
Lt. Col. Troy Giese, the OTV systems program director said, "Upon being given the command to return to Earth, the X-37B will automatically descend through the atmosphere and land on the designated runway. There is no one on the ground with a joystick flying it."
If weather or technical issues arise on landing day, then Edwards, AFB will be called up with it's longer runway.
The question on the minds of most in both military and civilian uniforms are asking if this is a one time event, or the start of a second generation space shuttle.
The military was to have taken over shuttle Discovery in 1986 for DoD flights from Vandenberg. However fuel contamination issues and the Challenger break-up forced the cancellation of a military launch pad in California.
In 1999, NASA begun the X37 project, however the space agency handed it over to DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in September 2004. DARPA is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
DARPA, originally formed in 1958 as the Advanced Research Projects Agency, is an office designed to prevent technological surprises against the United States, such as the Soviets launch of Sputnik in 1957.
The OTV project partnership between the military, DARPA and NASA was announced in October 2006.
Following a successful flight, the next OTV flight with a second craft is slated for this spring.