Air Force's secretive 'space plane' comes down to earth after 2 years

Katie Ramirez
November 4, 2019

However, any results or data from the mission are, well, a secret.

The Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is back on the ground after completing its latest record-breaking unmanned mission in space. The space plane, as it is called, in a variant titled X-37B, just completed its fifth mission to the edge of space, and set a record for time spent up there in the process.

"This program continues to push the envelope as the world's only reusable space vehicle", said Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director Randy Walden.

The X-37B is the Air Force's premier reusable and unmanned spacecraft that provides flexibility to improve technologies in a way that allows scientists and engineers to recover experiments tested in a long-duration space environment.

The unpiloted X-37B space plane is one of two winged orbiters used to carry out classified research.

Officially, the spaceplane conducted in-orbit experiments during its stay, but predictably the Air Force does not say what those experiments were all about.

"This spacecraft is a key component of the space community", X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen is quoted as saying. Prior to 1999, Boeing had been contracted to build X-40, a larger version of the current X-37.

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With five successful orbital flights in its belt, the Air Force definitely isn't stopping now.

The X-37B was first developed by NASA as a test-bed for future spacecraft, but it was transferred to the Defense Advanced Research Agency in 2004 and then absorbed by the Air Force. When they return to Earth, they touch down horizontally on a runway, like a commercial airplane or space shuttle orbiter coming in for landing.

The Air Force's X-37B program is less ambitious than SpaceX's interplanetary travel goals but it is, at the same time, also more daring.

'The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program, ' Walden said at the launch past year.

According to US Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett: "Each successive mission advances our nation's space capabilities". According to a new announcement from the US Air Force, X-37B successfully completed a 780 day orbit, beating its previous record of 717 days, 20 hours and 42 minutes. A sixth launch is planned for 2020.

In July, the service's former top civilian gave a glimpse into the space plane's mission.

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