After more than 700 days in space, the US Air Force’s experimental space shuttle X-37B landed in Florida on Sunday. It was the fourth mission of the reusable, unmanned space plane. The mission took off on May 20, 2015 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. It landed at the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 7:47 AM EDT.
An ‘incredibly exciting’ day for the Air Force
It was the first time the space plane landed at the Kennedy Space Center. The previous three missions landed at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Air Force Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith said in a statement that it was an “incredibly exciting” day for the USAF. The team had been preparing for this event for the last several years, and their hard work has finally paid off.
The Air Force officials indicated that Sunday’s landing was the first of many at the Kennedy Space Center. The ability to land, refurbish, and launch the vehicle from a single location will enhance its ability to quickly integrate and qualify novel space technologies. Though the X-37B launches vertically, it comes back to ground horizontally for a runway landing.
Each X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has spent more time in space than the previous one. For instance, the OTV-1 spend 224 days in space, the OTV-2 stayed in orbit for 468 days, the OTV-3 orbited the Earth for 674 days, and the latest one spent 718 days in space.
Testing advanced technologies
The sonic boom during Sunday’s landing had startled the nearby residents. The Air Force officials had refused to confirm the rumors of its return from space. They announced the landing only after the event. The USAF has two X-37B space vehicles, both built by Boeing. Little is known about the 29-foot-long unmanned spacecraft. There have been speculations that it has critical military applications such as surveillance or combat.
However, the USAF has consistently reiterated that the program is aimed at testing advanced technologies such as guidance, navigation, control, thermal protection, avionics, and advanced propulsion systems. The X-37B development started back in 1999. NASA initially wanted to use it to repair satellites in the orbit, but it was too costly. Later, Pentagon picked it up as part of DARPA.
What’s the purpose of the X-37B?
There is no denying the possibility that the project has military applications. The United States’ military space program is “as big as NASA,” according to astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. It has more than two dozen spy satellites or other secret vehicles orbiting the planet. Satellite spotters have been able to track the X-37B in the Earth’s orbit in the past. They found that the mission once followed an orbit that took it over Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.
There have also been speculations that the space plane could be some sort of a weapon capable of disabling enemy satellites.