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Robotic mini space shuttle expected to land at Vandenberg

November 30, 2010 |  7:50 pm

X37

The X-37, an unmanned spacecraft that resembles a miniature version of the space shuttle, is set to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base as early as this week -- more than seven months after it was launched into orbit.

The Air Force, which has been developing the X-37 pilotless space plane, has kept the ultimate purpose of the program hush-hush. It was launched April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The covert nature of the program -- coupled with the fact it was funded by the Pentagon -- fueled speculation it was being used for military purposes, such as an "orbital bomber."

What we do know is that the X-37 was built by Boeing Co.'s advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach. It's about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels.

Officials at Vandenberg said in a statement Tuesday that preparations were underway for the X-37 to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land on the base's 15,000-foot landing strip.

“The exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations," the statement said, adding that it was expected to occur sometime from Friday to Monday.  

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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: The X-37 sits in its encapsulation cell before it was launched at Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket on April 22. Credit: U.S. Air Force

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