“An unpiloted Air Force X-37B spaceplane, one of two winged orbiters used to carry out classified research, made a surprise landing at the Kennedy Space Center early Sunday to close out a record 780-day mission,” reports CBS News:
It was the fifth flight in the secretive Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program, pushing total time aloft to 2,865 days. “This program continues to push the envelope as the (Air Force’s) only reusable space vehicle,” Randy Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives.”
The unpiloted orbiters, built by Boeing, are based on the same lifting body design used for the space shuttle and they fly a similar re-entry trajectory to a runway touchdown. The X-37B features a small 4-foot by 7-foot payload bay and uses a deployable solar array for power. The spacecraft are believed to fly as orbital test beds for advanced technology sensors and other systems but the program is classified, and the Air Force provides few details. Walden said the latest mission “successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites….”
The X-37B is one of only two operational spacecraft capable of multiple flights to and from orbit. SpaceX’s unpiloted Dragon cargo ship also can be refurbished for additional flights… “This spacecraft is a key component of the space community,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Keen, X-37B program manager, said in the Air Force statement. “This milestone demonstrates our commitment to conducting experiments for America’s future space exploration. Congratulations to the X-37B team for a job well done.”
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