Air Force’s Top Secret X-37B Space Plane Lands After Two-Year Mission In Orbit

Residents near Cape Canaveral, Florida were awakened by a strange alarm clock on Sunday morning. The United States military’s secretive and experimental Orbital Test Vehicle, or X-37B space plane, broke through the sound barrier on its return to earth awakening many residents. It landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 7:47am EST.

air force x 37b front shot
Image from: United States Air Force

X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen commented, “The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation. 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.”

The unmanned X-37B performed “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies” for more than seven hundred days in orbit. The actual purpose and mission of the vehicle, as well as the cost of its program, are all classified. Many speculate that the X-37B may be testing intelligence-related hardware.

There are only two X-37B’s in the United States Air Force. They were built by the United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corporation and Boeing Company. They spacecraft is roughly a quarter of the size of the retired Space Shuttle at 29 feet long with a wingspan of 15 feet.

This was the X-37B’s fourth mission and it beat its own previous record of 674 days in orbit. The first mission was launched in April 2010 and lasted eight months, the second mission started in March 2011 and returned after fifteen months, and its third mission launched in December 2012. Some believe that the third mission was an attempt to keep an eye out on the Chinese space station. As of its latest mission, the X-37B has spent 2,085 cumulative days in orbit.

air force x 37b side shot
Image from: United States Air Force

This was the first landing to occur in Florida. The first three landings took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force relocated the program in 2014 and now uses two hangars that once housed NASA Space Shuttles. The X-37B’s is set to launch for its fifth mission from Florida some time later this year.