The U.S. Air Force has confirmed that the military's experimental X-37B space plane has completed a classified mission that lasted almost two years and has landed on Sunday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The X-37B is unmanned and resembles a miniature space shuttle. It touched down at 7:47 am ET on a runway that was previously used for landings of the now-mothballed space shuttles. Local media outlets reported that the 29ft aircraft's return caused a sonic boom that rattled Florida and could be heard as far away as Tampa and Fort Myers.
It was a Boeing-built space plane that blasted off in May 2015 from the nearby Cape Canaveral air force station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance that was borne out of a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. The X-37B conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit. It was the fourth mission that turned out to be the lengthiest as well so far for the secretive program. It is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and one of the two air force fleet.
Also known as Orbital Test Vehicle, the X-37 B first flew in April 2010 and returned after eight months. A second mission launched in March 2011 lasted for about 15 months, and a third one took flight in December and completed the mission after 22 months. In its just concluded mission, the orbiters performed risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies, according to the air force. The cost of the program remains classified. Non-profit group the Secure World Foundation which promotes the peaceful exploration of space says the secrecy about the X-37 B suggests the presence of intelligence-related hardware being tested or evaluated about the craft.
Sunday's flight marks the first time X-37 B landed in Florida as the three previous ones took place at Vandenberg air force base in California. The air force opted to relocate the program in 2014, as it took over two of NASA'a former shuttle-processing hangars. The air force plans to launch next to the fifth X-37 B mission from Cape Canaveral air force station, located just south of the Kennedy Space Center later this 2017.