Air Force's mystery space plane lands, ends 2-year mission

United States

United States

The US Boeing X-37B unmanned reusable spaceplane landed on Sunday at the Kennedy Space Center after spending record 780 days in space, during which it put a number of small satellites into orbit, the US Air Force said.

"I am pleased to see the X-37B land safely back in Florida and congratulate the Air Force and the men and women who support this program on the completion of this successful mission", Senator Marco Rubio said.

"The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane", Barbara Barrett, the newly appointed Air Force secretary, said in a statement. The X-37B features a small 4-foot by 7-foot payload bay and uses a deployable solar array for power. Experiments from the Air Force Research Laboratory were aboard.

Prior to consolidation, the 29-foot-long X-37B had launched from both Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida - but the space plane only landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The aircraft's latest trip, called the Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5), started on September 7th, 2017.

As ever, the biggest question surrounding the Air Force's space plane concerned what it was up to during its long flight in low-Earth orbit.

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The Air Force is thought to have at least two of the robotic space planes, which were built by Boeing as part of a project that started out under NASA's wing but was transferred to the Pentagon in 2004.

"This program continues to push the envelope as the world's only reusable space vehicle".

This is the fifth X-37B space plane to be launched into orbit over the past decade, with each flight longer than its predecessor. Sources have suggested it serves several purposes for the Air Force, including as an in-orbit test bed for developing advanced surveillance sensors.

The distinctive ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B program. That's impressive considering the spaceplane was originally created to remain in orbit for just 270 days.

Military leaders, many of whom were previously sceptical of the need for an entirely new branch of the armed services, appear to be excited about Donald Trump's Space Force and the way that the X-37B might play a role in that branch of the military. OTV-2 launched in March 2011, marking the first flight of a second X-37B, and stayed in orbit for 468 days.

The space plane designed by Boeing needs a rocket to get to space and was created to operate autonomously, at times including during landing.

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