Military Mini-Shuttle Completes Secret Mission
On April 22, the U.S. Air Force launched a mini unmanned shuttle called the Orbital Test Vehicle, also known as the X-37B.
After 224 days in space, the 9 meter-long robotic spacecraft landed under the shroud of darkness at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.
In the early hours of Dec. 3, 2010, the X-37B became the first U.S. space vehicle to make an autonomous runway landing from orbit.
Although the X-37B's mission was classified, the Air Force allowed a glimpse of the space drone shortly after it landed on the Californian air strip.
After launch, little was known about the X-37B's mission or orbit. However, amateur astronomers skilled at tracking satellites were able to occasionally glimpse the unmanned spacecraft as it streaked overhead.
An Infrared Landing
An infrared snapshot of the X-37B shortly after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Dec. 3, 2010. Presumably, the X-37B is highlighted due to heating caused by atmospheric re-entry.
Air Force personnel examine the X-37B shortly after landing.
They are wearing S.C.A.P.E. (Self-Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble) suits while checking the vehicle and ensuring the area is safe. This is standard operating procedure, especially when working near toxic propellants.
The hope is to make the X-37B a fast-turnaround space vehicle, where the same re-usable spacecraft can land, re-fueled and re-launched within days, rather than the months it takes to re-launch NASA's space shuttle fleet.
"Once we get the bird back, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again," Gary Payton, who served as undersecretary of the Air Force for Space Programs, told reporters before the launch.