7 May 2017
The unmanned X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, touched down at 7.47am ET on a runway formerly used for landings of the now-mothballed space shuttles, the air force said in an email.
Media outlets reported that the nine metre (29ft) aircraft’s return caused a sonic boom that rattled central Florida and could be heard as far away as Tampa and Fort Myers.
The Boeing-built space plane blasted off in May 2015 from nearby Cape Canaveral air force station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
The X-37B, one of two in the air force fleet, conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit. It was the fourth and lengthiest mission so far for the secretive program, managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
The orbiters “perform risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies”, the air force has said, without providing details. The cost of the program is also classified.
The Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit group promoting the peaceful exploration of space, says the secrecy surrounding the X-37B suggests the presence of intelligence-related hardware being tested or evaluated aboard the craft.
The vehicles are about one quarter of the size of the now-retired space shuttles.
The X-37B, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, first flew in April 2010 and returned after eight months. A second mission launched in March 2011 and lasted 15 months, while a third took flight in December 2012 and returned after 22 months.
Sunday’s landing was the X-37B’s first in Florida. The three previous landings took place at Vandenberg air force base in California. The air force relocated the program in 2014, taking over two of Nasa’s former shuttle-processing hangars.
The air force intends to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape
Canaveral air force station, located just south of the Kennedy
Space Center, later this year.