The mysterious X-37B, an experimental spacecraft/aircraft flown by the US Air Force, landed in Florida over the weekend.
After circling Earth for an unprecedented 718 days, the X-37B as OTV-4 touched down Sunday, May 7, at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The landing at the SLF was the first since the final space shuttle mission landed on Earth in July 2011. The landing occurred at 7:47am, triggering a sonic boom that was heard over a large part of central Florida.
“Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, the 45th Space Wing commander. “Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”
“The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” said Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager. “This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities. We are extremely proud of the dedication and hard work by the entire team.”
While the US Air Force shared those remarks of satisfaction, they’ve said little else. The X-37B unmanned plane looks like a miniature space shuttle; it is 29 feet long and has a wing span of about 15 feet; it is roughly a quarter the size of the original space shuttle. The Boeing-built space plane was launched in May 2015 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. An Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, carried the plane. No details were shared of when/where the craft entered space nor were any details of what it did above the Earth made public. Details of how it is flown and the technology on-board is classified.
The US Air Force has two X-37B craft in its fleet, but the program cost is kept secret.
The X-37B made its first flight in April 2010 and returned back to Earth after eight months of travel. In March 2011, a second mission was launched and it lasted 15 months. In December 2012, a third flight took place ; that mission lasted 22 months away from Earth. The X-37B typically lands at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; this weekend’s launch was the first at Florida’s Space Coast.
According to the US Air Force, the next X-37B mission is likely to be launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station later this year. The specific timing and purpose are being kept secret.