After spending 15 months in orbit conducting classified missions, the Air Force’s unmanned X-37B space plane made its way back to Earth over the weekend, touching down at Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday morning.
The landing marks the second arrival of the secret space plane – a craft first initiated by NASA in 1999 – at the California base in the past few years. The first was made in 2010, when the first X-37B orbiter touched down after covering 91 million miles in orbit over the course of seven months.
While the landing brings the spacecraft’s second and longest orbital mission to a close, speculation regarding what exactly the space plane has been up to over the past 15 months is likely to continue well into the months to come.
Air Force officials have stressed the aircraft’s mission is to make headway in the realm of reusable spacecraft technology, but experts believe the spacecraft’s low orbit and large pick-up sized payload bay may hint at other, reconnaissance-related efforts.
The X-37B’s latest mission – which was recently called a “spectacular success” by a top Air Force commander – was originally slated to last only 9 months, before being extended to nearly twice that.
“With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development,” said X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre in a recent press release. “The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs.”
As one X-37B winds down from orbit, Air Force engineers are readying the other X-37B vehicle for its second launch, scheduled to occur in the fall.
Earlier this year, Boeing engineers hinted that a manned version of the X-37B space plane, resembling the X-38 Crew Return Vehicle originally designed by Scaled Composites, might be in the works.