Secretive X-37B Returns in Darkness After 780 Day Space Mission

The Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle Mission 5 successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility Oct. 27, 2019. The X-37B OTV is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. Credit: USAF

Residents of Florida’s ‘Space Coast’ in northern Brevard County were awakened with sonic booms before the crack of dawn this morning, thanks to the unannounced arrival of the secretive U.S. Air Force X-37B spaceplane, which landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at 3:51 a.m. local after spending 780 days in space.

Doing what? Who knows, but today’s landing closes out the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program’s 5th flight, breaking its previous record for time in space on a mission and accumulating a grand total of 2,865 days on-orbit through the program, which “performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies,” according to the USAF.

X-37B launching on its fifth mission from KSC pad 39A atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Photo: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace.com

“This program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle. With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives,” said Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”

The spaceplane launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from KSC pad 39A on Sep 7, 2017, where Boeing maintains two of the vehicles in a former space shuttle processing hangar behind the landscape’s iconic and colossal Vehicle Assembly Building.

The X-37B mounted in its ULA Atlas V protective fairing for the ride to space for mission OTV-4. Photo Credit: Boeing

It first launched on April 22, 2010 and spent nearly 225 days aloft, followed by the second mission launched March 5, 2011 which spent 469 days aloft. The third mission was launched on Dec. 11, 2012 and spent 674 days in orbit, followed by OTV-4 in May 2015, which stayed on-orbit for 718 days before landing at KSC in May 2017.

A sixth mission, OTV-6, is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2020.

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