Secret space plane lands after 2-year mission

Workers in protective suits check out the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehcile after its touchdown at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility. (U.S. Air Force Photo)

After nearly two years in orbit, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B robotic space plane landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida today with a loud sonic boom, but nary a word about what exactly it was doing up there all this time.

This was the fourth and longest classified mission for the Boeing-built craft, which was launched from Florida 718 days earlier in 2015 atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The three earlier missions were flown in 2010, 2011-2012 and 2012-2014, with landings at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The Air Force’s fleet of X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles has now spent a total of 2,085 days to gauge the reusable winged plane’s ability to conduct on-orbit operations and return for airplane-style horizontal landings.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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