Sound like conspiracy theory, doesn’t it? But Space.com is reporting on the easily-forgotten OTHER space shuttle program – the Air Force’s top-secret unmanned shuttle, the X37-B, that’s coming home after two years in orbit:
The robotic X-37B space plane, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, will land at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where Air Force officials are gearing up for its return. As of today (Oct. 12), the X-37B mini-shuttle has been in orbit since December 2012 and racked up a record-shattering 671 days in space.
“Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission” said Col. Keith Baits, 30th Space Wing commander, in a statement on Friday.
The mission in orbit now, called Orbital Test Vehicle 3 (OTV-3), launched on Dec. 11, 2012 aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.
As its name suggests, the OTV-3 mission is the third X-37B flight, but it uses the same space plane that launched on the program’s first mission, OTV-1, in April 2010. That first flight lasted 225 days. The second X-37B space plane launched in March 2011 and returned to Earth in June 2012 after 469 days in orbit.
The current OTV-3 mission for the X-37B has left the endurance milestones of the earlier missions in the dust.
Boeing’s Phantom Works division built the X-37B mini-shuttles. The spacecraft are able to stay in orbit for months by using a solar array to generate power.