Boeing Co. said its second X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle landed in California today after a 469-day mission by the U.S. Air Force to test the capabilities of reusable unmanned vehicles for future space missions.
The pilotless spacecraft, which was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, on March 5, 2011, landed on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:48 a.m. local time, Boeing said in a statement.
“With OTV-1, we proved that unmanned space vehicles can be sent into orbit and safely recovered,” Paul Rusnock, Boeing vice president of Government Space Systems, said in the statement. “With OTV-2, we tested the vehicle design even further by extending the 220-day mission duration of the first vehicle, and testing additional capabilities.”
Originally a joint research effort beginning in 1999 by NASA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Boeing, the program was transferred to the Air Force in 2004. With a length of 29 feet, 3 inches (about 8.9 meters), height of 9 feet, 6 inches and a wingspan of 14 feet, 11 inches, the X-37B is about one-fourth the size of the recently retired space shuttles, Boeing said in a previous release. The vehicles were designed to stay in orbit for 270 days, Boeing said.
OTV-1 was the U.S.’s first unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own, Boeing said. Previously, the space shuttle was the only spacecraft capable of returning to Earth and being reused, the company said in the statement.
The Soviet Union’s Buran shuttle completed one unmanned flight in 1988.
The Air Force plans another X-37B launch from Cape Canaveral later this year aboard an Atlas V booster; no date has been set.