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X-37B space plane returns to earth after seven months in orbit

December 3, 2010 | 11:21 am

X37

The X-37B robotic spacecraft, which resembles a miniature version of the space shuttle, touched down at Vandenberg Air Force Base early Friday morning, marking the first time an American unmanned vehicle returned from orbit to land on its own.

Until now, the space shuttle was the only reusable space plane capable of returning to earth.

"This marks a new era in space exploration," Paul Rusnock, the X-37’s program director for Boeing Co., which made the spacecraft, said in a statement.

The mysterious X-37B was launched April 22 from Cape Canaveral, Fla. That means it spent more than seven months orbiting the Earth.

Doing what? The government won’t exactly say.

The Air Force, which has been developing the pilotless space plane, has deflected questions about using the X-37B for military missions, saying that it is simply a way to test new technologies, such as satellite sensors and components.

Experts have questioned whether the Pentagon would be willing to spend possibly hundreds of millions of dollars for an orbiting laboratory at a time when the government is tightening its budget belt. They have speculated that the military might one day want to use it as a orbiting spycraft, cargo plane or bomber.

What we do know is that the X-37B was built by Boeing's advanced research lab, Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach.

It is the latest version of a spacecraft that initially began more than a decade ago as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle. When President George W. Bush decided to retire the space shuttle, the Pentagon took over the program and shrouded its development in secrecy.

The X-37B is about 29 feet long, 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.

Air Force officials said Friday that the government planned to launch a second X-37 in next spring.

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-- W.J. Hennigan

Photo: The X-37, perched atop an Atlas V rocket, awaits launch in a special encapsulation cell at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in April Credit: U.S. Air Force

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