Air Force's unmanned spaceplane makes first KSC landing

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The Air Force’s secret unmanned spaceplane made a surprise landing at Kennedy Space Center early Sunday after over 700 days in space. The returning X-37B announced its arrival with a sonic boom, giving Space Coast residents their second booming wakeup call in a week.

When the small craft’s wheels touched down on the Shuttle Landing Facility runway just before 8 a.m., it marked the first time that a spacecraft landed at Kennedy Space Center since the last flight of space shuttle Atlantis nearly six years ago.  A photo released by the Air Force this morning showed suited technicians inspecting the stubby spaceplane on the runway with the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building in the background.

Three previous X-7B missions all concluded at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  But the Air Force now maintains one of three former shuttle hangars at KSC for the X-37B program, allowing the Boeing-built spaceplane to launch, land, and be refurbished at the same spaceport.

This flight was the longest for the X-37B program, which consists of two identical mini-shuttles, each about the size of a truck. They both fly autonomously and have a small cargo bay that theoretically can deploy mini-satellites or expose payloads directly to space.

Previous missions have extended from 224 to 468 to 674 days in space, with this flight -- dubbed OTV-4 -- clocking in at 718 days, just short of two years.  But the Air Force won’t say just what the spaceplanes do in orbit all that time.  The Pentagon’s official statement is "the X-37B program is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”

"The landing of OTV-4 marks another success for the X-37B program and the nation," Lt. Col. Ron Fehlen, X-37B program manager, said in a statement released after the landing. "This mission once again set an on-orbit endurance record and marks the vehicle's first landing in the state of Florida. We are incredibly pleased with the performance of the space vehicle and are excited about the data gathered to support the scientific and space communities. We are extremely proud of the dedication and hard work by the entire team."

The Air Force did not announce the landing in advance, but some spaceport neighbors were quick to figure out what the sonic booms were connected to.

It was the second such wakeup call in the last few days.  Monday, a SpaceX first-stage booster sent a loud pair of booms echoing across the coast as it landed at Cape Canaveral after sending a classified satellite into orbit.