ABC's Luis Martinez sends the following note from the Pentagon:
"Remember the Air Force’s unmanned 'baby space shuttle,' the X-37B, launched in late April? Seven months later the military is now putting out the word that it’s going to land this weekend at Vandenberg AFB in California.
"The Air Force has been secretive about what kind of payload the small shuttle’s been carrying all this time, but it soon became clear that it was some kind of reconnaissance device. They say the goal is to have a reusable spacecraft that can carry payloads in orbit for as long as nine months. That way they can send up different devices when needed."
The Air Force put out this two-sentence release:
"Preparations for the first landing of the X-37B are underway at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Space professionals from the 30th Space Wing will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the Air Force's first X-37B, called the Orbital Test Vehicle 1 (OTV-1). While the exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations, it is expected to occur between Friday, December 3, and Monday, December 6, 2010."
It's not giving away a whole lot to post this; the Air Force posted a fact sheet HERE, and amateur skywatchers (plus other countries, we can assume) were able to see the 29-foot-long ship as it passed overhead in the night sky. Space.com posted video back in May, which it said was shot by Kevin Fetter of Brockville, Ontario. Take a look HERE.
Whatever the ship's mission is, it does have the distiction of being one of the few reusable orbiters in development. NASA decided long ago that the space shuttles were so complicated that it might as well focus on ships — like the Orion space capsule, whose mission is now in limbo — that are good for, at most, three or four flights. The Air Force is picking up on the X-37 space plane NASA dropped from its budget in 2004. (Above: U.S. Air Force photo of X-37B in its launch shroud.)