Air Force’s super-secret space drone comes home

Air Force's unmanned X-37B was in space for 674 days

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The Air Force’s acknowledged one thing about its secretive X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle today—it has returned from a 674-day trip into Earth’s orbit – or wherever else it might have snuck off too while it was up there.

According to the Air Force, the X-37B landed at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday (Oct. 17) at 9:24 a.m. local Pacific time (12:24 p.m.) EDT. It was the only update the public was given since the spacecraft took off on Dec. 11, 2012. It was the Orbital Test Vehicle program’s third mission.

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The Air Force in a statement did say "the OTV-3 conducted on-orbit experiments for 674 days during its mission, extending the total number of days spent on-orbit for the OTV program to 1,367 days."

Beyond the take-off and landing, little else is known of this mission.

 According to the Air Force the spacecraft is based on NASA's X-37 design (NASA's X-37 system was never built) and is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the orbital test vehicle autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway.

 The Air Force discloses this much information on the X-37B:

Details:

Prime Contractor: Boeing

Height: 9 feet, 6 inches (2.9 meters)

Length: 29 feet, 3 inches (8.9 meters)

Wingspan: 14 feet, 11 inches (4.5 meters)

Launch Weight: 11,000 pounds (4,990 kilograms)

Power: Gallium Arsenide Solar Cells with lithium-Ion batteries

 Mission The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force. The primary objectives of the X-37B are twofold: reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space and operating experiments that can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.

Features The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft. Based on NASA's X-37 design, the unmanned OTV is designed for vertical launch to low Earth orbit altitudes where it can perform long duration space technology experimentation and testing. Upon command from the ground, the OTV autonomously re-enters the atmosphere, descends and lands horizontally on a runway. The X-37B is the first vehicle since NASA's Shuttle Orbiter with the ability to return experiments to Earth. Technologies being tested in the program include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, conformal reusable insulation, lightweight electromechanical flight systems, and autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.

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