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X-37B Space Plane Returns Home to Vandenberg AFB

Secret craft lands after spending a record 22 months in orbit

Cloaked in a veil of secrecy, the military's reusable mini space plane returned home by landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday morning after shattering its previous record for number of days in orbit.

After initially saying they were unaware of its return, Vandenberg public affairs representatives confirmed more than an hour afterward that the unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle had touched down at 9:24 a.m. on the base’s runway.

Lompoc residents had reported on social media hearing a sonic boom about 9:30 a.m.  Additionally, by 10 a.m. the Air Force had lifted all advisories that were in place for boaters and pilots.

"The 30th Space Wing and our mission partners, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Boeing, and our base support contractors, have put countless hours of hard work into preparing for this landing and today we were able to see the culmination of that dedication," said Col Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander. "I'm extremely proud of our team for coming together to execute this third safe and successful landing.  Everyone from our on console space operators to our airfield managers and civil engineers take pride in this unique mission and exemplify excellence during its execution.”

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle rocketed into space Dec. 11, 2012, aboard an Atlas 5 rocket that blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

The OTV-3 conducted on-orbit experiments for 22 months during its mission, extending the total number of days spent on-orbit for the OTV program to 1,367 days. 

This was the third mission for the X-37B program, and second for this specific vehicle. Each flight has lasted substantially longer than the previous, with this one hitting nearly 675 days in space by the time it returned.

"The landing of OTV-3 marks a  hallmark event for the program,” said the X-37B program manager, whose name wasn’t included in the press release. "The mission is our longest to date and we're pleased with the incremental progress we've seen in our testing of the reusable space plane. The dedication and hard work by the entire team has made us extremely proud.”

It’s not clear if the Air Force purposely withheld the program manager’s name as part of the unusual secrecy surrounding this program or inadvertently left it out of the press release.

The program is shrouded in secrecy, the kind most space programs abandoned more than a decade ago. 

“In broad terms, the purpose of such secrecy is to preserve technological advantages or operational secrets,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Government Secrecy Project  with the Federation of American Scientists. “Is that approach valid in this case? It could be. But it’s hard to know from the outside.”

Typically, there are two approaches to secrecy, he added, with one focused only on intensively protecting core secrets. The approach is sometimes called “high fences around narrow areas.” 

“A contrasting approach is to surround those core secrets with multiple layers of classification. The outer layers of classified information may not really be very sensitive at all, but they are supposed to serve as a protective barrier to the inner layers where the real secrets are,” he said, adding it appears the Air Force has adopted this approach for the X-37B program.

“Based on past experience, the level of secrecy attached to this program could increase its costs by 50 to 100 percent,” Aftergood added. “It’s expensive, and cumbersome.”

With only vague explanations from the Air Force about the X-37B program's purpose, people have speculated and shared conspiracy theories regarding what they believe its real mission involves, ranging from getting a close-up look at other nation's spacecraft or carrying spy satellite equipment to monitor spots on Earth. 

The program actually began under NASA and was transferred to the Air Force a decade ago.

“Over the years it had many sponsors, and beauty was in the eye of the beholder — it was many things to many people,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.  “Now I think the main purpose is to keep the Red Chinese bewildered, so they would have to respond to every potential mission it might perform.”

Pike added that keeping the program highly secret “makes it seem more important” and helps keeps the China “focused on all the different threats that it might pose to them.”

It’s believed there’s just two X-37B vehicles in the program and the one that returned Friday also flew the first mission. The program's two other launches occurred from Florida on April 22, 2010 and March 5, 2011.

The two previous landings were at Vandenberg in December 2010 and June 2012.

The X-37B, which is 29 feet long, is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft, according to the Air Force. and falls under the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, which will only say the vehicle performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

The Air Force is preparing to launch the fourth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2015.

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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