Unmanned US Air Force space plane lands after secret, two-year orbit

The US military’s experimental space plane, X-37B landed on 7 May 2017 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre in Florida after completing a two-year-long classified space mission. The unmanned Boeing-built space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, blasted off in May 2015 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint effort between Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

The plane touched down early morning on 7 May on a runway, which was previously used for the landing of NASA’s space shuttles. The space plane is reported to have conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit, making it the fourth and lengthiest secret mission managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. The cost of the entire program is classified information.

According to reports, the secrecy surrounding the programme suggests the presence of intelligence-related hardware being tested or evaluated aboard the craft. X-37B is one of the two space planes in the Air Force fleet. Both the vehicles are 29 feet long and have a wingspan of 15 feet, making them almost one quarter the size of NASA’s now-retired space shuttles.

Known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), it is a reusable unmanned spacecraft. It is boosted into space with the help of a launch vehicle, then re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and lands as a spaceplane. It is operated by the United States Air Force for orbital spaceflight missions to test reusable space technologies. The X-37A began as a NASA project in 1999 but was transferred to the U.S. Department of Defence in 2004.

In November 2006, the U.S. Air Force announced its intention of developing its own variant from NASA’s X-37A. The building efforts were led by the US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office in partnership with NASA and the Air Force Research Laboratory with Boeing as the prime contractor. The X-37B first flew in April 2010 and returned after eight months.

The second and third missions that were launched in March 2011 and December 2012 lasted longer, for 15 and 22 months respectively. All the previous three landings took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, making the fourth landing X-37B’s first in Florida. The US Air Force intends to launch the space plane’s fifth mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the end of 2017.

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