The Air Force’s robotic space plane that has been in orbit for more than a year returned to the Earth June 16th.
The Air Force landed its ‘secret’ X-37B space plane on Saturday, after having spent 15 months in space. It landed at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The landing date was somewhat flexible. “We continue to monitor weather and technical conditions day by day to ensure conditions are safe for landing,” Vandenberg spokesman Jeremy Eggers said before the landing. “At this time, the next available opportunity is Saturday, dependent upon weather and technical conditions. The landing window extends through June 18.”
The landing window for the X-37B had just opened up on Monday (June 11).
The outside design of the X-37B is much like NASA’s now-retired space shuttles, only in miniature. The space plane is around 29 feet long by 15 feet wide (8.8 by 4.5 meters), and has a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed. (By comparison, two entire X-37Bs could fit inside the payload bay in a space shuttle.)
The spacecraft is powered by a solar array in the payload bay, giving it the ability to stay in the air for extended periods of time. The Boeing-built X-37B is also designed to land itself on a runway without human-help.
The Air Force launched the X-37B last year, on March 5, 2011, sending the reusable space plane design on its second-ever space mission. The X-37B is also known as Orbital Test Vehicle-2, or OTV-2.
Another X-37B, called OTV-1, made the program’s maiden flight back in April 2010. That space plane stayed aloft for 225 days, well under the spacecraft’s previously estimated 270-day limit. OTV-2 has been aloft for well over 200 days above that limit.
The mission of OTV-2 has been a mystery — the space plane’s mission and payloads are classified. Some nations — such as China — have raised concerns that the X-37B may be a space weapon or something like that.
Air Force officials, however, have said that that the vehicle’s main task is testing out new technologies for future satellites.
Even though OTV-2 landed on the 16th, there will be another one up soon. The Air Force has stated that it plans to launch OTV-1 on another mission soon, maybe as early as this fall.
Image Credits: NASA/Boeing, 30 Spacewing USAF