Air Force space plane lands after secret mission

An unpiloted military space plane, launched by an Atlas 5 rocket in May 2015, glided to an unannounced landing on the long shuttle runway at the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday, closing out a 718-day mission. It was the first Florida landing of a returning spacecraft since Atlantis flew home in the program’s final mission in 2011.

Sonic booms rumbled across central Florida around 8 a.m. and a few minutes later, the Air Force tweeted that the Boeing-built X-37B space plane — a compact, delta-wing craft equipped with a payload bay, a solar power boom and a sophisticated computer control systems — had returned from orbit and landed safely.

“Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers,” Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander, said in a statement. “Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing.”

It was the fourth clandestine flight of the X-37B, the longest in the program and the first to end in Florida, where Boeing has taken over two former shuttle processing hangars that have been modified to handle the secret spycraft. The first three missions ended with landings at Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Los Angeles.

Total time in space by both vehicles across four flights now stands at 2,085 days.

“This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle’s first landing in the state of Florida,” Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager, said in the Air Force statement. “We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities.”

The program’s fifth launch is expected later this year.

Two X-37Bs,…

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