LOMPOC, CALIFORNIA (BNO NEWS) -- An unmanned U.S. Air Force space shuttle landed at a military base in California on early Saturday, ending a 15-month clandestine mission in orbit, officials said. It is the second flight involving such a spacecraft, and a new mission is planned for later this year.
The unmanned and reusable space plane, which looks similar to a space shuttle but weighs just five tonnes and measures some 29 feet (8.8 meters) long, landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 5:48 a.m. local time on Saturday. The spacecraft spent 469 days in orbit, much longer than the 270 days it was designed for.
"Team Vandenberg has put in over a year's worth of hard work in preparation for this landing and today we were able to see the fruits of our labor," said 30th Space Wing commander Col. Nina Armagno. "I am so proud of our team for coming together to execute this landing operation safely and successfully."
The U.S. Air Force said the spacecraft, which is formally known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), conducted on-orbit experiments during its mission, but details are classified. Officials have described X-37B as the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft which is able to perform risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.
"With the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B OTV program brings a singular capability to space technology development," said X-37B program manager Lt. Col. Tom McIntyre. "The return capability allows the Air Force to test new technologies without the same risk commitment faced by other programs. We're proud of the entire team's successful efforts to bring this mission to an outstanding conclusion."
The first X-37B spacecraft blasted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 5, 2010. It was the world's first spacecraft to make an autonomous landing from orbit since the Soviet Union's Buran spacecraft carried out an unmanned flight in fully automatic mode in 1988.
The U.S. Air Force has said it plans to launch another X-37B spacecraft from Cape Canaveral sometime this fall aboard an Atlas V booster. It will be the same spacecraft which carried out the first X-37B flight in 2010, when it spent 224 days in orbit. An exact launch date has yet to be announced.
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