Secret Air Force space plane X-37B set to return to Earth after 22-month mission
The robot space plane, launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket on Dec. 11, 2012, is set to complete its third mission when it lands at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California on Tuesday.
The U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B mini shuttle is expected to return to Earth on Tuesday, wrapping up a 22-month mission.
The robot space plane, launched aboard an Atlas 5 rocket on Dec. 11, 2012, is set to complete its third mission when it lands at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California — although what the craft has been doing during its near two-year long mission remains a secret.
Industry sources suggest that the 29-foot (8.8 metre) long X-37B plane is designed to carry a range of high-tech sensors and radars that could be used for spying, according to the Daily Beast.
This means the craft can be reconfigured and its equipment replaced with more up-to-date designs. Its ability to change orbits also makes it more flexible and more cost effective than conventional satellites.
The craft’s orbit over countries including North Korea, China, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan also suggests that its primary mission is intelligence gathering.
The unmanned, reusable space plane, which resembles the Space Shuttle, is one of two known to be operated by the U.S. Air Force and had previously spent 224 days circling Earth during its debut mission in 2010.
A sister ship blasted off in 2011 and landed itself after 469 days in space, completing the second orbital test flight.
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