Publication Date : Tuesday 14 October 2014 19:30
Secret US space plane lands after spending two years in orbit
A mysterious US Air Force unmanned aircraft is landing after 22 months of orbiting the Earth amid speculations that it is sent for spying or military mission.
The X-37B, which looks like a small space shuttle, took off to a clandestine mission over undisclosed nations, from Cape Canaveral in Florida on December 11, 2012.
It is believed that the X-37B operates like a spying satellite but with a large fuel tank for maneuvering that lets it switch orbits and escape detection from ground.
The Vandenberg Air Force Base in California released a notice to aviators on the Federal Aviation Administration's website and announced that airspace around the Southern California base would remain closed from morning to afternoon on Tuesday.
"Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission," Col. Keith Baits, commander of the 30th Space Wing, said in a statement last week.
"I think it is primarily an ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) platform for testing new sensor technologies or validating new technologies," Brian Weeden, a retired US Air Force Space Command officer, told The Daily Beast.
"The current [vehicle] on orbit has basically been in the same orbit since launch, with only the occasional maneuver to maintain that orbit. That's consistent with a remote sensing/ISR mission."
The X-37B, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle 3 or OTV-3, is designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth, an Air Force statement said.
"Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, re-entry and landing."
The US Air Force says it owns two X-37B orbiters. This was the third mission conducted by this type of aircraft. The last mission ended after 469 days of flying in June 2012.
The X-37B spacecraft is 29 feet, 3 inches long and 9 feet, 6 inches high with a wingspan of 14 feet and 11 inches. It weighs about 5.5 tons. It needs to be lifted into space by United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.