One of the most mysterious craft ever to be flown by the US military has now been in orbit for a record 718 days. The X-37B space plane, known as as Orbital Test Vehicle-4 (OTV-4), broke its own previous record of 674 days
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The US Air Force’s secretive X-37B spaceplane landed after 718 days in orbit — just twelve days shy of a full two years. What was it doing up there in the sky? The government won’t say. Even the spaceplane’s budget is a secret. But the X-37B’s landing wasn’t so stealth. The spaceplane caused a sonic boom that woke up people living near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The secret, reusable spaceplane is made by Boeing and is unmanned, allowing it to conduct extended missions, even if the public has no idea what those missions might be. This was the X-37B’s fourth mission (all secret, of course) and the spaceplane typically lands in California, not Florida. Again, we don’t know enough about the spaceplane’s purpose to speculate about why it landed in Florida and woke up the neighbors this time around.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) has now spent an astonishing 2,085 cumulative days in orbit since its first mission in April of 2010. When the spaceplane first took off on its most recent mission on May 20, 2015, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Prince were all still alive, and Donald Trump was still a month out from announcing his bid for president — something that was met with little more than jokes at the time.

“The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation,” X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen said in a statement without giving away the plot of this real-life mystery movie we seem to be living in.

The US Air Force's 4th mystery X-37B space plane mission  /  image by Space.com  /  source Space.com

On May 20, 2015, the U.S. Air Force's fourth classified X-37B space plane mission - called Orbital Test Vehicle 4 - launched into orbit from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The mission landed on May 7, 2017 after a record-shattering 718 days in space.

OTV-4 stationary at the Shuttle Landing Facility  /  image by U.S. Air Force  /  source Wikipedia.com  /  license CC0

The Air Force's X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 landed at NASA 's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

The U.S. Air Force's X-37B spaceplane sits on the runway  /  image by Boeing  /  source Space.com

Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in this 2014 file photo.

Secret X-37b Spacecraft on the ground  /  image by Logic Earth  /  source YouTube.com

Taken from the video footage "The Secret X-37b Spacecraft Landing and More!"

X-37B with Air Force crews  /  image by U.S. Air Force, Michael Stonecypher  /  source PopSci.com

Air Force crews tend to the X-37B secretive space plane after it returned from its maiden voyage Dec. 3, 2010.

“The hard work of the X-37B OTV team and the 45th Space Wing successfully demonstrated the flexibility and resolve necessary to continue the nation’s advancement in space,” Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “The ability to land, refurbish, and launch from the same location further enhances the OTV’s ability to rapidly integrate and qualify new space technologies.”

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell  /  image by US Air Force  /  source PopSci.com

The Astrotech facility April 13, 2010, in Titusville, Florida. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell  /  image by US Air Force  /  source Wikipedia.com  /  license CC0

The Astrotech facility April 13, 2010, in Titusville, Florida. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft.

“The hard work of the X-37B OTV team and the 45th Space Wing successfully demonstrated the flexibility and resolve necessary to continue the nation’s advancement in space,” Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “The ability to land, refurbish, and launch from the same location further enhances the OTV’s ability to rapidly integrate and qualify new space technologies.”

Illustration of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle  /  image by Karl Tate  /  source NASA, United Launch Alliance

Illustration of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle

Three-views of the X-37B  /  image by Wikipedia.com  /  source Wikipedia.com  /  license CC BY-SA

Three-views of the X-37B (top view)

Three-views of the X-37B  /  image by Wikipedia.com  /  source Wikipedia.com  /  license CC BY-SA

Three-views of the X-37B (bottom view)

1999 artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft  /  image by NASA, Marshall Space Flight Center  /  source Wikipedia.com  /  license CC0

An artist's conception of the X-37 Advanced Technology Demonstrator as it glides to a landing on earth. Its design features a rounded fuselage topped by an experiment bay; short, double delta wings (like those of the Shuttle orbiter); and two stabilizers (that form a V-shape) at the rear of the vehicle.

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Source and references

  1. GizmoDo.com by Matt Novak - Top Secret Air Force Spaceplane Lands with Sonic Boom After Two Years in Orbit
  2. USAToday.com by James Dean - Unmanned military space plane touches down after two-year secret mission
  3. Space.com by Mike Wall - Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Lands in Florida After Record-Breaking Secret Mission
  4. Space.com by Mike Wall - X-37B: The Air Force's Mysterious Space Plane
  5. Space.com by Mike Wall - The US Military's Secretive X-37B Space Plane: 6 Surprising Facts
  6. Space.com by Mike Wall - Mysterious X-37B Military Space Plane to Fly Again Next Month
  7. Space.com by Leonard David - Air Force's Mysterious X-37B Space Plane Wings by 600 Days in Orbit
  8. PopSci.com by Clay Dillow - The Air Force's X-37B Space Plane Returns to Earth After a 15-Month Secret Mission
  9. PopSci.com by Kelsey D. Atherton - One Year Ago Today, The Air Force Put A Secret Robot In Space
  10. Reuters.com by Irene Klotz - Unmanned U.S. Air Force space plane lands after secret, two-year mission
  11. DailyMail.co.uk by Cheyenne Macdonald and Ellie Zolfagharifard - Air Force's mysterious X-37B space plane reaches a record 677 days in orbit
  12. Wikipedia.com - Boeing X-37

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Last updated 1 year ago on November 16, 2017 at 9:54 PM PST

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