Saturday, June 16, 2012

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Air Force's Secret X-37B Space Plane Lands in Calif. After Mystery Mission

The U.S. Air Force's robotic X-37B space plane finally returned to Earth Saturday (June 16), wrapping up a mysterious mission that lasted more than year in orbit.
The unmanned X-37B spacecraft, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle-2 (OTV-2), glided back to Earth on autopilot, touching down at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. PDT (8:48 a.m. EDT, 1248 GMT). The landing brought to an end the X-37B program's second-ever spaceflight, a mission that lasted more than 15 months with objectives that remain shrouded in secrecy.
Air Force officials announced the X-37B space plane's successful landing in a brief statement posted on the Vandenberg website and sent to reporters.
"Team Vandenberg has put in over a year's worth of hard work in preparation for this landing and today we were able to see the fruits of our labor," said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander at Vandenberg. "I am so proud of our team for coming together to execute this landing operation safely and successfully." [Photos: Air Force's 2nd Secret X-37B Mission]
The X-37B stayed in orbit for 469 days this time, more than doubling the 225 days its sister ship, OTV-1, spent in space last year on the program's maiden flight. Officials at Vandenberg said the spacecraft conducted "on-orbit experiments" during its mission. The landing window for the X-37B actually opened on June 11, and was expected to close on Monday (June 18).

An extended, mysterious mission
OTV-2 launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on March 5, 2011. The space plane was designed to stay aloft for 270 days, but the Air Force kept it flying well beyond that milestone in a mission that officials recently called a "spectacular success."
"With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development," said X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre in a statement. "The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We're proud of the entire team's successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion."
Exactly what the spacecraft, which is built by Boeing's Phantom Works division, was doing up there for so long is a secret. The details of the X-37B's mission are classified, as is its payload, with its mission overseen by the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office.
This secrecy has led to some speculation, especially online and abroad, that the X-37B could be a space weapon of some sort — perhaps a sophisticated satellite-killer. Some experts also suspect that the vehicle may be an orbital spy platform.
The Air Force, however, has worked to tamp down such speculation, stressing repeatedly that the X-37B isn't doing anything nefarious hundreds of miles above the Earth's surface.
"This is a test vehicle to prove the materials and capabilities, to put experiments in space and bring them back and check out the technologies," Richard McKinney, the Air Force's deputy undersecretary for space programs, said shortly after OTV-1 landed in December 2010.
"My words to others who might read anything else into that is 'just listen to what we're telling you,'" McKinney added. "This is, pure and simple, a test vehicle so we can prove technologies and capabilities."
The X-37B looks a bit like NASA's recently retired space shuttle, but it's far smaller. The X-37B is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. Two X-37B vehicles could fit inside the payload bay of a space shuttle.
The spacecraft's orbital longevity is enabled by its solar array, which generates power after deploying from its payload bay and allows for longer spaceflights.
Cargo and crew carrier?
While the X-37B currently flies only hush-hush missions for the Defense Department, its spaceflight role may be expanded in the future.
In its current state, the vehicle could fly cargo missions to the International Space Station, docking to the orbiting outpost's common berthing port, Boeing officials have said.
Boeing is also looking into building a larger variant of the spacecraft called the X-37C, which could ferry up to six astronauts to the space station. The X-37C would be 65 to 80 percent bigger than the X-37B.
Originally, NASA used the X-37B as an experimental test bed until funding for the project ran out in 2004. The vehicle then passed to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and it was ultimately turned over to the Air Force in 2006.
Vandenberg officials said the next X-37B mission will launch sometime in later this year, most likely during fall. That mission will use the first X-37B to fly, OTV-1, in a second flight.
Follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or SPACE.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Saudi Crown Prince Nayef, heir to throne, dies

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Nayef, a hawkish interior minister who crushed al Qaeda in the world's top oil exporter, died on Saturday eight months after becoming heir to the throne, paving the way for a more reform-minded successor.
As with previous successions, the selection process is likely to be smooth, with King Abdullah and a family council expected to start work on the appointment of a new crown prince swiftly.
Nayef's most likely successor as crown prince is the pragmatic Prince Salman, 76, a brother of King Abdullah who was made defence minister in November after more than five decades as Riyadh governor, analysts and diplomats in the kingdom said.
Nayef's elevation to crown prince after the death of his brother Sultan last year had alarmed moderates and liberals who feared he would stop reforms set in train by his brother Abdullah if he became king.
"With deep sorrow and grief... King Abdullah mourns his brother... Crown Prince Nayef who passed to the mercy of God on Saturday outside the kingdom," said a royal court statement.
A source close to the royal family said Nayef had died suddenly in Geneva after receiving treatment for a knee complaint. He was thought to be 78.
His death was not expected to trigger any major changes to the kingdom's energy policy or to key relationships with the United States and other allies.
"The fundamental principle that the Saudis operate under is stability," said Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Riyadh from 2001-03. "So they will, I'm sure, develop a consensus among the senior members of the family over an orderly succession. That has likely been forming in recent months in any event," he said.
FUTURE DIRECTION
At stake is the future direction of a country that possesses more than one fifth of proven global oil reserves.
Seen as a key ally for the West, Saudi Arabia has provided critical intelligence to foil al Qaeda plots, bankrolled pro-Western Arab governments and has supported Washington's attempts to isolate Iran.
To liberals, Nayef, a son of the state's founder, was the forbidding face of a conservative establishment that opposed any real moves toward democracy or greater women's rights, oversaw the fearsome religious police and, for years, headed an Interior Ministry which imprisoned political activists without charge.
He was regarded as closer than many of his brothers to the hard-line Wahhabi religious establishment whose support was vital to his father's establishment of the state in the early 20th century. As a result, he enjoyed particular favor with the clergy who help provide legitimacy to the royal house.
Reputed to be a hard-line conservative, he is thought to have blocked some of King Abdullah's cautious social and economic reforms and to have promised to block any moves towards democracy.
In his 37 years as interior minister, he developed a formidable security force that crushed al Qaeda but also locked up some political activists.
On his watch, the conservative kingdom emerged from last year's Arab uprisings looking like one of the most stable states in the Middle East.
"He supervised the security affairs of the state for more than 30 years. He scored a lot of successes there. Especially in fighting al Qaeda," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi analyst.
UNKNOWN QUANTITY
Analysts said Nayef's death meant King Abdullah was likely to call on the family Allegiance Council, which he formed in 2005, to affirm his choice of a new crown prince, probably in the coming days.
Prince Salman has long been viewed as the next most senior royal family member after the late Nayef. If he became king, analysts believe he would continue King Abdullah's cautious reforms.
"Salman will take over as crown prince and it will be seamless. I don't see any major ramifications," said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst for the Dubai-based INEGMA group.
Since King Abdullah is already 89, his crown prince would probably assume a major role in state affairs quickly.
Salman had served as Riyadh governor for five decades, a position that gave him considerable experience dealing with foreign diplomats, tribal leaders and important clerics, three important constituencies for any Saudi leader.
However, he is seen as something of an unknown quantity politically.
"It appeared to me he had a good handle on the delicate balancing act he had to do to move society forward while being respectful of its traditions and conservative ways," Jordan, the former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, said.
Saudi Arabia does not practice official mourning periods or close government offices after the death of a senior royal.
However, when Crown Prince Sultan died last October there was a three-day condolences period when foreign dignitaries and tribal and religious leaders paid their respects to King Abdullah before his new heir was announced.
After Nayef's death, state TV played Koranic verses and aired footage of pilgrims circling the great mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, where Nayef will be buried on Sunday.
INTERIOR MINISTER
In a statement, British Prime Minister David Cameron expressed his government's condolences over Nayef's death, praising his "leadership and dedication".
The king of neighboring Bahrain and Kuwait ordered three-day mourning periods, state news agencies reported.
Nayef's younger half brother Prince Ahmed, who is deputy interior minister, is seen as a likely candidate to take over the interior ministry portfolio, while his son, Mohammed, is another contender.
Like his brothers King Abdullah and Salman, Nayef was one of the nearly 40 sons of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who established the kingdom in 1935.
King Abdullah in May hosted a summit for Gulf Arab leaders and has looked well, if tired, in recent television appearances, but in October had his third round of back surgery in 12 months.
Although most Saudi watchers say it is very likely that Salman will become the kingdom's leader after King Abdullah, it is uncertain who would then be seen as next in line.
Although nearly 20 of King Abdulaziz's sons are still alive, few have the requisite experience to lead the country.
Under Saudi law, the line of sons must be exhausted before moving on a generation. But it might be seen as embarrassing for elder grandsons, who come first in the official line of precedence, to be overruled by their younger uncles.
Mecca Governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a son of the late King Faisal and brother to Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, is seen as a contender among the next generation.
Another is Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and Eastern Province Governor Prince Mohammed bin Fahd.
Under succession rules drawn up six years ago, a new king has to nominate his choice of crown prince for approval by a family "allegiance" council.
Although the council was involved in the appointment of Nayef as crown prince in October, it is not clear whether it voted on Abdullah's choice or was simply informed of it.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Amena Bakr; Editing by Sami Aboudi, Samia Nakhoul and Andrew Osborn)

Suu Kyi receives Nobel Peace Prize 21 years late

"What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me," Suu Kyi said as the packed crowd, led by Norway's King Harald and Queen Sonja, rose in a standing ovation at the ornate Oslo City Hall.
Suu Kyi, 66, the Oxford University-educated daughter of General Aung San, Myanmar's assassinated independence hero, said much remained to be resolved in her country.
"Hostilities have not ceased in the far north; to the west, communal violence resulting in arson and murder were taking place just several days before I started out the journey that has brought me here today," said Suu Kyi, on her first visit to Europe in nearly a quarter of a century.
"There still remain (political) prisoners in Burma. It is to be feared that because the best known detainees have been released, the remainder, the unknown ones, will be forgotten," she said, wearing a purple traditional Burmese dress and looking strong and healthy after falling ill on Thursday.
Still, Suu Kyi - elected to parliament in April - said she was confident President Thein Sein wanted to put the country on a new path.
"I don't think we should fear reversal," she told public broadcaster NRK. "(But) I don't think we should take it for granted there is no reversal."
Suspending rather than lifting sanctions was also the right move to keep pressure on the government, she said a day after arriving from Switzerland to a jubilant, dancing and chanting crowd, which showered her with flowers.
"If these reforms prove to be a façade, then the rewards will be taken away."
INSTRUMENTAL
Suu Kyi, who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest between 1989 and her release in late 2010, never left Myanmar even during brief periods of freedom after 1989, afraid the military would not let back in.
Her sons Kim and Alexander accepted the Nobel prize on her behalf in 1991, with her husband Michael Aris also attending the ceremony. A year later Suu Kyi said she would use the $1.3 million prize money to establish a health and education trust for Burmese people.
She was unable to be with Aris, an Oxford academic, when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and died in Britain in 1999.
On Saturday, Kim and Anthony Aris, her late husband's identical twin brother, attended the ceremony.
Suu Kyi thanked Norway, a nation of just 5 million people, for its support and the instrumental role it played in Myanmar's transformation.
In 1990, the Bergen-based Rafto Foundation awarded its annual prize to Suu Kyi, after a Norwegian aid worker in South-East Asia highlighted her work.
The award provided lasting publicity for her non-violent struggle against Myanmar's military junta, putting her in the international spotlight and setting the stage a year later for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Norway has also provided a home to the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition television and radio outlet, which broadcasts uncensored news into Myanmar.
Suu Kyi acknowledged that recent violence between Rakhine Buddhists and stateless Muslim Rohingyas in the northwestern Rakhine region was a test of Myanmar's transformation but she blamed lawlessness for the escalation.
The violence, which displaced 30,000 people and killed 50 by government accounts, flared last month with a rampage of rock-hurling, arson and machete attacks, after the gang rape and murder of a Buddhist woman that was blamed on Muslims.
"The very first time a crime was committed... they should have taken action in accordance with the rule of law," Suu Kyi told the BBC.
"If they had been able to do that, and to satisfy all parties involved that justice was done ... I do not think these disturbances would have grown to such proportions."
Tensions stem from an entrenched, long-standing distrust of around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas, who are recognised by neither Myanmar nor neighbouring Bangladesh, and are largely considered illegal immigrants.
Suu Kyi is also due to visit Ireland, Britain and France.
(Editing by Sophie Hares and Ralph Gowling)