The U.S. military has announced the end of the 22-month mission of the robotic spacecraft X-37B. The craft has been on a classified mission for almost 2-years and is looking to successfully cease that mission on Oct. 14 and will touch down at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
In a statement, Vandenberg Air Force Base said that the exact data and time of the landing will depend on weather conditions and technical considerations but it is already making the necessary preparations to ensure the safe landing of the reusable aircraft.
The X-37B has been the subject of intense speculation ever since it was launched on its very first mission in April 2010 with very little explanation from the Air Force. A second plane followed in March 2012, In December 2012, that first plane was launched back into space, where it has been presumably spying on Earth ever since.
According to the Daily Beast, the X-37B most probably carries a bevy of radars, cameras, and other sensors that you might find on your regular spy satellite.
“The idea is that the X-37B carries “specialized” sensors packages that can be reconfigured as needed for each mission when the aircraft returns to Earth. That ability to reconfigure the robotic spacecraft makes the X-37B cheaper and more flexible than a satellite—which goes up once with one package of sensors and is eventually discarded. Satellites can often cost billions of dollars and cannot reconfigured or reused, unlike the X-37B.”
Moreover, according to manufacturer Boeing, the space plane operates in low-earth orbit, between 110 and 500 miles above earth. By comparison, the International Space Station orbits at about 220 miles. Like a shuttle, it is blasted into orbit by a rocket. However, it lands using a runway like a normal aircraft.
The X-37B is too small to carry people onboard, but does have a cargo bay similar to that of a pickup truck, which is just large enough to carry a small satellite.
The 29-foot long robotic space plane is an experimental spacecraft built by the Phantom Works division of aerospace company Boeing. It has the ability to autonomously fly itself during landings and can stay in orbit for months by tapping on a solar array for its power source. The military said that the spacecraft is designed for testing technologies but is mum on the details of the vehicle’s missions.