Air Force's Secret Space Plane Lands In California - InformationWeek

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Air Force's Secret Space Plane Lands In California

The X-37B touched down at Vandenberg AFB amid speculation about the military's true intentions for the unmanned orbiter.

The U.S. Air Force's secrecy-enshrouded unmanned space plane glided to a successful landing in the pre-dawn darkness at a base about 130 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

The robotically controlled X-37B came to a halt on the runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base about 1:16 a.m. PST following seven months in space, according to Air Force officials. "We are very pleased that the program completed all the non-orbit objectives for the first mission," program manager Lt. Col. Troy Giese said, in a statement.

The Air Force has divulged scant information about its intentions for the X-37B, which it inherited from an earlier NASA program to develop reusable orbiting vehicles. Speculation over uses for the five-and-a-half ton spacecraft has ranged from an orbiting weapons platform to a hi-tech surveillance instrument.

For its part, the military is saying only that the X-37B, which is similar to a scaled down version of the space shuttle in appearance, will serve as "a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force."

According to the Air Force, the objectives for the X-37B program "include space experimentation, risk reduction and a concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies."

The Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office is developing the X-37B in concert with private aerospace contractor Boeing. NASA first launched the program in 1999, then transferred it to DARPA in 2004.

The Air Force has said the X-37B, which launched April 22 from Florida's Cape Canaveral while strapped to an Atlas V rocket, will return to space for more tests next year.

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