An Air Force X-37B spaceplane has returned to Earth following a record 780-day mission.
The pilotless spaceplane, which has been conducting classified research in the secretive Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program, made a surprise landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida early Sunday morning.
‘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 statement announcing the landing.
‘The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.’
The spaceplane broke its own previous record of 718 days in orbit back in August.
It is one of two reusable, unmanned X-37B models that are capable of performing multiple long-term flights to and from orbit.
The spacecraft are lauded for ‘providing the performance and flexibility to improve technologies in a way that allows scientists and engineers to recover experiments tested in a long-duration space environment’.
Together, they have accumulated a total of 2,895 days on-orbit with the OTV program.
‘This program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle,’ Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, said in Sunday’s statement.
‘With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives.
‘This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites.’
The aircraft’s latest trip, called the Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5), started on September 7th, 2017.
It launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
Officials have revealed few details about the OTV-5 mission but there has been a suggestion it could be part of a push for a US Space Force.
The plane is 29 feet (8.8 metres) long, 9.6 feet (2.9 metres) tall and weighs around 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms).
Powered by solar cells with lithium-ion batteries, the plane was orbiting at around 200 miles (320 kilometres) high.
Little is known about what it was carrying but on board OTV-5’s payload was a US thermal spreader which tests the longevity of electronics and heat pipes in the space environment.
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Source: Daily Mail