The X-37B, the Air Force’s top secret spacefaring drone, has come home.
The Air Force announced today that the unmanned space system had landed safely at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Although it had been expected to land sometime this week, just when it would occur was a bit of a mystery — fitting, because the whole program has been largely kept in shadows.
Here’s what we know about the X-37B: it’s a reusable, unmanned space vehicle. It goes up in a rocket, like a satellite, and then returns to earth like the old space shuttle. It’s made by Boeing. This is the third mission the X-37B has been up on, and this trip saw it log over 670 days in space.
And, well… that’s about all we know. What it’s done that whole time is unclear, and Air Force officials seem to take a certain evil delight in letting reporter’s know they aren’t going to say anything.
At May’s National Space Symposium, Gen. William Shelton, then head of Air Force Space Command, was practically begged by a reporter for any little tidbit on what the system is doing. After listening politely, Shelton offered a bit of a smile and the following:
“The X-37 is doing great. I can’t tell you what it’s doing, but it’s doing great.”
Not exactly revelatory stuff. Anything to learn in the official Air Force factsheet?
Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.
Which doesn’t really say much, either. Luckily, we have speculation to keep us entertained, and there is plenty of that.
The truth is, the X-37B has been something of an obsession for space geeks. What’s it been doing up there? Is it really just testing what the service says its testing, or is it some sort of secret alien fighting device keeping the Earth safe from the ravages of an angry invasion? (Answer: we hope so.)
Hopefully we’ll find out more in the future, but if history holds, the most we’ll find out is when the msyterious space plane goes up for its next mission.
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