Early Saturday morning, an unmanned Air Force space plane landed by itself at a California military base, wrapping up a 15-month clandestine mission. The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in March 2011 and conducted in-orbit experiments during the mission. This was the second autonomous landing at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, which is located 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The previous space plane landed in 2010, seven months after it had been launched. The stubby-winged robotic X-37B fired its engine to slip out of orbit, pierced the atmosphere and glided down onto the runway like an airplane.
The X-37B OTV program brings the USA a singular capability for space technology development, since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired, states Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B’s program manager. This autonomous return allowed the testing of new technology without the same risk commitment as other programs. The Air Force plans to launch the first one again later this year, although they haven’t set an exact date yet.
The plane had a classified payload on board, which could have been an experimental spy satellite that was testing some new form of imaging.