A 22-month classified mission flown by a robotic and mysterious Air Force space plane will come to an end this week with Vandenberg Air Force Base teams preparing for its landing. While base officials said the exact date and time will depend on “technical and weather considerations,” ground crews expect its arrival as soon as Tuesday. “Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission,” said base commander Col. Keith Balts.
The reusable X-37B, which resembles a mini-space shuttle, launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on December 11, 2012. Originally scheduled to stay aloft for just nine months, it was kept in orbit for another year for undisclosed reasons. The Air Force has remained notably quiet about its space plane program, saying only that the flights are “designed to demonstrate reusable spacecraft technologies for America’s future in space.” The missions test guidance controls, thermal protection systems, and autonomous flight, re-entry, and landing, military officials say.
Conspiracy theories abound about the true purpose of the flights. Some have speculated that the X-37B is used to spy on the Chinese space station Tiangong. Others say it’s being considered as a troop transport or nuclear bomber.
A second X-37B blasted off from Cape Canaveral on March 5, 2011. It was originally supposed to spend 270 days above Earth, but the 29-foot-long, 15-foot-wide spacecraft was kept in the air for 469 days. It landed at Vandenberg in June 2012 on a specially prepared runway. The first X-37B voyage began on April 22, 2010, lasted 244 days, and also ended at Vandenberg.
Boeing’s Phantom Works division built the two mini-shuttles equipped with deployable solar panels to generate power and small payload bays about the size of a pickup truck bed. Last week, the Air Force and NASA finalized a lease agreement to relocate the X-37B program, overseen by the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, from California to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.