Air Force spaceplane returns to Earth after two years

- J.D. Gallop Florida Today USA TODAY NETWORK

MELBOURNE, Fla. – Residents along the Space Coast may have heard a boom early Sunday as the U.S. Air Force’s secretive, uncrewed X-37B spaceplane returned to Kennedy Space Center after nearly two years in orbit.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle completed its fifth mission, landing about 3:51 a.m. Sunday at KSC’s space shuttle landing facility for the second time. The 29-foot Boeing spaceplane was greeted by workers in protective suits as it sat on the tarmac.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrat­e the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said in a statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabiliti­es.”

The mini-shuttle was in orbit for 780 days for its latest mission, breaking its previous record of 717 days. The spaceplane has spent 2,865 days orbiting Earth. Its mission experiment­s are typically kept top secret but have a focus on Air Force Research Laboratory experiment­s along with providing a lift into orbit for small satellites.

“The safe return of this spacecraft, after breaking its own endurance record, is the result of the innovative partnershi­p between government and industry,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said in a release. “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”

The shuttle’s latest mission launched Sept. 7, 2017, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The next flight – its sixth – will launch from there in 2020.

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