Pentagon’s mystery ‘space plane’ to touch down after record time in orbit

Pentagon’s mystery ‘space plane’ to touch down after record time in orbit
The Boeing X-37B, a highly classified robotic spacecraft built for the US Air Force, is to make its third landing after spending more than 670 days in low-Earth orbit. The space plane’s purpose remains a mystery, though surveillance is a likely candidate.

X-37B is expected to land automatically at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a facility serving as a testing base for the DoD.

“Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission,” said Col. Keith Baits, 30th Space Wing commander.

Personnel in self-contained atmospheric protective ensemble suits conduct initial checks on the X-37B Orbital Vehicle (Reuters / HO)

While the base officials say the exact date and timing of the landing would depend on weather conditions, the base issued a notice to aviators to stay away from the area between 3 am and 4 pm. Tuesday, local time (10 am to 11 pm GMT).

The spacecraft was launched on December 11, 2012 by an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It has since been flying in low-Earth orbit, performing whatever mission the Pentagon had prepared for its third test run.

In March, X-37B broke its own space longevity record for staying in orbit. Its two previous rounds in space in 2010 and 2011-2012 lasted 225 and 469 days, respectively.

X-37B Orbital Vehicle (Reuters / HO)

The reusable spacecraft, which resembles an unmanned version of the now decommissioned Space Shuttle vehicles, remains highly classified. The secrecy shrouding X-37B led to a plethora of versions about its purpose.

Conventional theories from space and military enthusiasts believe the spacecraft will add additional reconnaissance capabilities to the US arsenal – either directly, or by deploying a small satellite from its cargo bay at a desired orbit.

More sinister theories suggest that the vehicle may be weaponized and serve as a space counterpart to the Predator unmanned aerial vehicles.