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A Supersecret Spacecraft Comes Back to Earth After Two Years

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on the runway during post-landing operations on Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on the runway during post-landing operations on Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in CaliforniaPhotograph by Michael Stonecypher/U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force has kept an unmanned space shuttle in orbit for the past two years, and it seems no one without security clearance knows what it’s been doing up there.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which can enter orbit and land without human intervention, is scheduled to touch down this week—the best guess is sometime on Tuesday—at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif. The landing will mark completion of the program’s third and longest mission, which was launched on Dec. 11, 2012. The Air Force has two such spacecraft for these low-earth orbit missions, all of which are classified, as are the precise launch and landing times.