Aeronautics, Science and Technology

This Unmanned U.S. Air Force Space Plane Just Landed After A Two Year Secret Mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (Reuters) – The U.S. military’s experimental X-37B space plane landed on Sunday at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a classified mission that lasted nearly two years, the Air Force said.

The unmanned X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, touched down at 7:47 a.m. EDT (1147 GMT) on a runway formerly used for landings of the now-mothballed space shuttles, the Air Force said in an email.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Florida, March 2010.
REUTERS/U.S. Air Force



 

The Boeing-built space plane blasted off in May 2015 from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing.

The X-37B, one of two in the Air Force fleet, conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit. It was the fourth and lengthiest mission so far for the secretive program, managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

Technicians conduct post-landing operations on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base, December 2010.
REUTERS/U.S. Air Force



 

The orbiters “perform risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” the Air Force has said without providing details. The cost of the program is also classified.

The Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit group promoting the peaceful exploration of space, says the secrecy surrounding the X-37B suggests the presence of intelligence-related hardware being tested or evaluated aboard the craft.

Personnel in self-contained atmospheric protective ensemble suits conduct initial checks on the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 1. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Michael Stonecypher
ember 2012 and returned after 22 months.




 

Sunday’s landing was the X-37B’s first in Florida. The three previous landings took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force relocated the program in 2014, taking over two of NASA’s former shuttle-processing hangars.

The Air Force intends to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the Kennedy Space Center, later this year.

The U.S. Airforce’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 after landing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., May 7, 2017. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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Jamie is an amateur astronomer and every day space geek.