The secretive X-37B is an unpiloted military space plane that was launched from Florida and now the vehicle prepares to make an auto-touchdown in California after being in orbit for more than a year.
Officials at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California say the reusable miniature shuttle will land in the next few weeks, technical and weather conditions permitting.
While the exact landing date and time of the unmanned X-37B space plane is not yet determined, according to a Vandenberg Air Force Base statement, the craft’s touchdown “is expected to occur during the early- to mid-June timeframe.”
Preparations for the second landing of the X-37B are now underway at the Air Force base. “The men and women of Team Vandenberg are ready to execute safe landing operations anytime and at a moment’s notice,” said Col. Nina Armagno, 30th Space Wing commander.
Vandenberg is considered the mostly likely primary landing site for X-37B. Edwards Air Force Base, also in California, serves as a backup landing strip.
The Air Force’s 30th Space Wing will monitor the re-entry and self-guided landing of the second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission, called OTV-2.
This second flight of the winged X-37B space plane design began with a launch on March 5, 2011. It was lofted into Earth orbit by an Atlas 5 booster from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The space plane now circling Earth is the second spacecraft of its kind built for the Air Force by Boeing’s Phantom Works. What payload the X-37B is carrying is classified, and the mission is being carried out by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.
Each X-37B space plane is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide. The vehicle has a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed and is outfitted with a deployable solar panel to generate power.