Secret missions and stealth landings. Sound like a sci-fi novel? A real-life top-secret spacecraft returned to Earth over the weekend after completing a record-breaking two-year top-secret mission. The landing has ignited new theories about what the U.S. Air Force is doing with its high-flying technology.
The Boeing X-37B is an Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV. Robotic, solar-powered OTVs launch like space shuttles but land like airplanes. At about 29 feet long, the X-37B is one-fourth the size of a typical space shuttle. The vehicles fly by remote control without a crew. They are at least partly reusable because of their advanced reentry abilities.
The most recent OTV mission, known as USA-277, was the fifth spaceflight by a vehicle like this. The first took place in 2010. USA-277 launched aboard a SpaceX rocket in 2017. Its 780-day mission sets a new endurance record for the reusable test vehicle.
Some experts believe the Air Force is conducting various hush-hush experiments. Others believe it is merely testing reusable launch systems.
USA-277 landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida early Sunday morning. The Air Force is keeping extremely quiet about exactly what the plane did in orbit. However, officials do say this latest OTV mission successfully completed its goals and that experiments from the Air Force Research Laboratory were aboard.
The U.S. Air Force website reveals some of the technologies that its OTVs are testing. These include seals, advanced insulation, electrical, and propulsion materials—as well as cutting-edge self-flying, reentry, and landing systems.
The sixth mission is planned next year with another OTV launch from Cape Canaveral.
(The Air Force’s X-37B successfully lands at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility. U.S. Air Force,October 27, 2019 via AP)