Air Force mini-Shuttle returns to Earth at the end of clandestine 15-month mission around the globe

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), the Air Force's unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. (PDT) June 16. OTV-2, which launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., March 5, 2011, conducted on-orbit experiments for 469 days during its mission. 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. (photo credit: Boeing)

On Jun. 16, 2012 at 05.48 AM local (12.48 GMT), 469 days after it was launched, the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California at the end of the longest space mission only after the Discovery shuttle program.

The venicle glided powerless to landing on Vandenberg’s runway, located some 150 miles to the northwest of Los Angeles,.

The X-37B OTV-2, one of two unmanned, reusable space planes, about a fourhty the size of the shuttle, was launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket on Mar. 5, 2011, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to conduct on-orbit experiments and checkout of the vehicle itself.

However, since it is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project since 2004, secrecy surrounds the scope and details of the long OTV-2 journey around the planet.

According to Spaceflight Now, speculations about the real purposes of the the test bed “has ranged from secret flyby surveillance of China’s orbital station to the weaponization of space.”

According to the the Air Force: “the X-37B’s advanced thermal protection and solar power systems, and environmental modeling and range safety technologies are just some of the technologies being tested. Each mission helps us continue to advance the state-of-the-art in these areas” said Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre, the X-37B program manager.

Image credit: US Air Force

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About David Cenciotti 3844 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.