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Secret Space Plane to Land at Vandenberg Air Force Base After Record Orbit

Return to earth reportedly could occur as soon as Tuesday after spending 663 days in space

The military is prepping for the third return of its secret reusable space plane at Vandenberg Air Force Base, with the landing possibly as soon as Tuesday.

The unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle has been circling Earth since riding aboard an Atlas V rocket that launched Dec. 11, 2012, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The autonomous vehicle will land on Vandenberg’s runway, which was originally built to accommodate the much larger space shuttle orbiter. The West Coast program was canceled before any missions occurred at the base.

Vandenberg officials would only say the X-37B’s exact landing date and time will depend on technical and weather considerations.

However, notices to aviators and mariners are warning them to stay away from the area between 3 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday.

“Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission,” said Air Force Col. Keith Balts, commander of the 30th Space Wing.

If conditions are optimum, the landing may create a sonic boom, but it’s not clear if it will be heard by Central Coast residents.

Crews at Vandenberg will monitor the de-orbit and landing of the X-37B.

The landing is something crews at the base have readied for since the vehicle’s launch into obit nearly two years ago, Vandenberg officials said.

The X37-B is 29 feet long and boasts a wingspan of 14 feet.

This is the second spaceflight for the X-37B. The inaugural mini space shuttle first launched in 2010 and that mission lasted 224 days in orbit. The second vehicle topped its sibling by spending 468 days in orbit by the time it landed in June 2012.

As of Friday, the third X-37B mission had spent a record-setting 663 days in orbit.

The X-37B falls under the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which will only say the vehicle supports space experimentation, risk reduction, and concept of operations development for long duration and reusable space vehicle technologies.

The Air Force plans to be able to use NASA facilities in Florida for the X-37B program, and include Kennedy Space Center as a landing site, beginning with the fourth mission, officials said.

Kennedy Space Center officials announced recently that they had entered into an agreement with the Air Force’s X-37B program for use of the orbiter processing facility hangars to process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for launch.

The bays were last used during NASA’s space shuttle program, but no longer needs the facilities.

In addition to prepping the vehicle for launch, the X-37B program conducted testing at Kennedy’s shuttle landing facility to demonstrate that landing the vehicle at the former shuttle runway is a technically feasible option, NASA officials said.

Boeing Co. is performing construction upgrades in the former shuttle facilities on behalf of the X-37B program. These upgrades are expected to be complete in December.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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