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X-37B Returns to Earth After Third, and Longest, Mission

An Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) successfully landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base Oct. 17, 2014 after reentering the atmosphere Saturday morning, concluding the third, and longest, mission for the type.

The unmanned Boeing-built space plane had been in orbit for 674 days, conducting an “experimental test mission” for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, according to a Boeing release. The X-37B had been launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket on Dec. 11, 2012.

The first OTV mission began April 22, 2010, concluding on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and ended on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

The spacecraft, looking somewhat the worse for wear after its time in space and reentry, touched down at 9:24 AM.

X-37B on ground

The X-37B is checked out after landing. The spacecraft was in space for 674 days.

“We congratulate the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on this third successful OTV mission,” said Ken Torok, Boeing director of Experimental Systems. “With a program total of 1,367 days on orbit over three missions, these agile and powerful small space vehicles have completed more days on orbit than all 135 Space Shuttle missions combined, which total 1,334 days. The innovative X-37B combines the best of an aircraft and a spacecraft into an affordable, responsive unmanned vehicle and continues to demonstrate that reusable space vehicles are affordable options that support vital missions.”

The Air Force’s two X-37Bs have been the subjects of much speculation, ranging from their capabilities to their possible missions. The first OTV mission began April 22, 2010, concluding on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit. The second OTV mission began March 5, 2011, and ended on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

The X-37B program is demonstrating a reliable, reusable unmanned space test platform for the Air Force, the Boeing release stated. Its objectives include space experimentation, risk reduction and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies that could become key enablers for future space missions.