US secret X-37B orbital spacecraft successfully returns to Earth

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Photo by U.S. Air Force

After over 2 years in space, advanced US re-entry X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle spacecraft successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

This was the fourth flight of this vehicle. Boeing started the secret X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle project under NASA’s aegis in 1999. Originally, the reusable X-37 was intended to repair satellites in orbit. However, in 2004 the program was classified and handed over to the US Air Force.

It was the fourth clandestine flight of the X-37B, the longest in the program and the first to end in Florida, where Boeing has taken over two former shuttle processing hangars that have been modified to handle the secret spycraft. The first three missions ended with landings at Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Los Angeles.

Total time in space by both vehicles across four flights now stands at 2,085 days.

“This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida,” Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager, said in the Air Force statement. “We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities.”

The program’s fifth launch is expected later this year.

Two X-37Bs, also known as OTVs, or orbital test vehicles, are known to exist. OTV-1 flew the program’s first and third missions while OTV-2, flew the second and fourth, which began with launch atop an Atlas 5 rocket at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 20, 2015.

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