A top secret robotic Air Force space plane that looks like a mini space shuttle has returned to earth after more than a year in orbit, with another set to blast off later this year.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force's unmanned, reusable space plane manufactured by Boeing, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. (PDT) June 16.
30th Space Wing said OTV-2 conducted "on-orbit experiments" for 469 days during its mission, but the nature of the experiments was not revealed.
Some reports speculate the experimental test vehicle is involved in intelligence gathering operations or the testing of new technologies.
The Air Force described the OTV as "an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.
"The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth."
30th Space Wing commander, Col. Nina Armagno, released a statement congratulating Team Vandenberg for the successful landing.
"I am so proud of our team for coming together to execute this landing operation safely and successfully."
The X-37B is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program "performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies."
X-37B program manager, Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, said with the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a "singular capability" to space technology development.
"The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We're proud of the entire team's successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion," he said.
Boeing said OTV-1 proved that unmanned space vehicles can be sent into orbit and safely recovered.
Vice president of Government Space Systems, Paul Rusnock, said OTV-2 tested the vehicle design even further by extending the 220-day mission duration of the first vehicle, and testing additional capabilities.
"We look forward to the second launch of OTV-1 later this year and the opportunity to demonstrate that the X-37B is an affordable space vehicle that can be repeatedly reused," said Mr Rusnock.
OTV-1 was the United States’ first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own. Previously, the space shuttle was the only space vehicle capable of returning to Earth and being reused.
Boeing said the X-37B combines the best of an aircraft and a spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle.
The X-37B program is demonstrating a reliable, reusable unmanned space test platform for the Air Force. Its objectives include space experimentation, risk reduction, and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies that could become key enablers for future space missions.
Boeing's research on the space-based unmanned vehicle spans a decade and includes support to the Air Force Research Lab's X-40 program, NASA's X-37 program, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's X-37 Approach & Landing Test Vehicle program.
The Air Force is preparing for another launch of the X-37B from Cape Canaveral Air Force station sometime in Fall 2012 aboard an Atlas V booster.
This will be a re-flight of the first X-37B OTV, OVT-1, which was successfully recovered at Vandenberg AFB Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days on orbit.