X37-B lands after monumental stay in space

Perhaps taking some of the shine off the Chinese launch today, the X37-B launch vehicle landed today (Saturday 16th June) at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California at 09:48 EDT after nearly 469 days (15 months) in orbit.

This was only the second flight of the military launch vehicle and smashes the previous test flight record (225 days) of the inaugural flight of the X37-B back in 2010. It was launched, in a mission designated USA-226, aboard an Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on 5th March 2011. The mission was classified and described by the U.S. military as an effort to test new space technologies. In late November 2011, the U S Air Force announced that it would extend the second mission of the X37-B beyond its 270-day duration.

OTV-2 launch (Atlas V carrying X37-B)
OTV-2 launch (Atlas V carrying X37-B)

Total mission elasped time at “wheel stop” was 468 days, 13 hours and 2 minutes. The craft orbited the Earth more than 7,000 times.
X37-B after touchdown
X37-B after touchdown

X37-B soon after landing
X37-B soon after landing

The X37-B craft is loosely based on the larger American Space Shuttle, carries no crew, and is a fully autonomous vehicle, capable of landing itself with no human intervention. Being almost 30 ft (9 metres) long, it is sent into orbit on top of an Atlas V rocket

X-37B inside payload fairing of Atlas V before launch
X-37B inside payload fairing of Atlas V before launch

The project was initially conceived by NASA,in conjunction with the US Air force, but due to budgetary contraints and other factors the project became the sole responsibility of the Department of Defence in September 2004. The nature of the mission was highly classified, with very few details being made available to the public.


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