An unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane that’s circled the globe for 15 months is scheduled to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base sometime in the next couple of weeks. Military officials say the exact date will depend on weather conditions and technical factors, but touchdown should occur “during the early-to-mid-June timeframe,” according to a statement from the base. “The men and women of Team Vandenberg are ready to execute safe landing operations any time and at a moment’s notice,” said Colonel Nina Armagno, the 30th Space Wing commander.
The robotic X-37B, which is built by Boeing’s Phantom Works division and looks like a mini space shuttle, is shrouded in mystery, as officials haven’t disclosed its mission objectives or what sits in its payload bay, which is about the size of a pickup-truck bed. Edwards Air Force Base on the border of Kern and Los Angeles counties will serve as its backup landing site.
Equipped with a deployable solar panel to generate power, the reusable X-37B took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida on March 5, 2011, and was originally supposed to spend 270 days above Earth, but the 29-foot-long, 15-foot-wide spacecraft was kept in the air for unknown reasons. Military enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists have speculated it was spying on the Chinese space station Tiangong. Others say the X-37B was being tested as a troop transport or nuclear bomber.
The first voyage of an earlier X-37B model began on April 22, 2010, and lasted 244 days. It landed on December 3 on a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg. That top-secret landing was the first time an unmanned orbiter returned from space and landed autonomously. Military brass deemed the mission a success, saying the space plane’s navigation and guidance systems performed very well. Another launch is tentatively scheduled for October.