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 a 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 emailed 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 X-37B robotic space plane sits on the Vandenberg Air Force base runway during post-landing operations on Dec. 3, 2010. Personnel in self-contained protective atmospheric suits conduct initial checks on the robot space vehicle after its landing.
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 today’s 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, which is overseen by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, are classified, as is its payload. 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.
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