Articles

Mysterious Air Force space plane lands after 2-year mission

An unmanned US military space plane has landed at NASA'sKennedy Space Center following a mission lasting more than two years.


The , which looks like a miniature space shuttle, touched down May 7, causing a sonic boom as it landed on a runway once used for space shuttles which have been mothballed.

The sonic boom caused dozens of nearby residents to take to Twitter, with one saying her house "shook" and her dog had "gone into a frenzy".

Exactly what the space plane was doing during its 718 days in orbit is not entirely clear, with the US Air Force saying the orbiters "perform risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies."

The U.S. Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle 4 landed at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility in Florida May 7, 2017. Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)

The cost of the mission - the fourth and longest so far - is classified.

The Secure World Foundation, a non-profit group that promotes the peaceful exploration of space, says the secrecy surrounding the suggests intelligence-related hardware is being tested or evaluated aboard the craft.

At 29 feet-long and with a wingspan of 15 feet, the Boeing-built craft is about a quarter of the size of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's now-retired space shuttles.

This mission began in May 2015, when the plane set off from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

Its first mission was eight-months-long from April 2010, its second from March the following year lasted 15 months.

A third took off in December 2012 and ended after 22 months.

Another mission is scheduled later this year.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, sonic booms used to be common in the area during the 30 years of NASA's manned space shuttle programme, with landings at the Kennedy Space Center preceded by a loud double boom.

But the last of those shuttles landed nearly six years ago.

There is also a type of rocket - SpaceX's Falcon 9 - which produces sonic booms and these were last heard earlier this month.

But officials had refused to confirm the return date for the , so its arrival was not expected by residents.

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