Secret Air Force Space Plane X-37B Lands After Mystery Mission

By Amir Khan on June 18, 2012 10:43 AM EDT

X-37B
The U.S. Air Force's mysterious space plane, the X-37B, landed in California on Saturday after more an a year in orbit. The unmanned craft spent 469 days in space, though what it did while there is unknown. (Photo: Creative Commons)

The U.S. Air Force's mysterious space plane, the X-37B, landed in California on Saturday after more an a year in orbit. The unmanned craft spent 469 days in space, though what it did while there is unknown.

The X-37B launched from Cape Canaveral on March 5, 2011, and was scheduled to spend 270 in orbit, but the Air Force kept it there far beyond that time frame, making the mission a "spectacular success."  However, the Air Force would not comment on what the spacecraft did during its orbit, only saying that it "conducted on-orbit experiments."

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"With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development," Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager said, according to ABC News. "The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We're proud of the entire team's successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion."

The craft is similar in shape to NASA's recently retired space shuttle, but approximately half as big. At 29 feet long and 15 feet wide, two X-37Bs could fit into a space shuttle. The X-37B is powered by a solar array that generates power to keep the craft in orbit.

The craft's sister vehicle spent 224 days in space in 2010 under a similar veil of secrecy, leading some to speculate that it could be a space weapon of some sort. Experts, however, were quick to dismiss such claims.

"This is a test vehicle to prove the materials and capabilities, to put experiments in space and bring them back and check out the technologies," Richard McKinney, the Air Force's deputy undersecretary for space programs, said in 2010, according to MSNBC. "My words to others who might read anything else into that is, 'Just listen to what we're telling you.' This is, pure and simple, a test vehicle so we can prove technologies and capabilities."

Boeing predicts that the ship will one day be used to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. A bigger ship, the X-37C, is also in production, which could transport up to six astronauts to the ISS. The next X-37B ship will launch later this year, most likely in the fall, for a second stay in orbit.

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