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Watch The Air Force Land Its Secretive Orbital Vehicle

With little fanfare, an experimental spacecraft has spent the last two years in orbit. On Sunday, the Air Force’s unmanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, landed at Kennedy Space Center — issuing a sonic boom as it sped over the Florida coast.

You can watch the landing here:

 

The X-37B launched just under two years ago, on May 20, 2015. Here’s the launch:

Little is known about the X-37B project, but it’s notable that it’s an Air Force project and there’s speculation it may be used for surveillance in the future:

Air & Space magazine], the vehicle is likely testing autonomous systems for navigation and other functions, including landing. Additionally, most of the experts believe the Air Force is interested in using the vehicle as an on-orbit test bed for developing advanced surveillance sensors, as the military looks to transition from massive, expensive, and vulnerable observation satellites to smaller, cheaper, but just-as-capable reconnaissance satellites.

[Ars Technica]

On the more mundane (although less worrying) side of things, it’s also possible the X-37B is designed only as a testing ground for how new sensors and technologies will perform in space:

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Could the government be telling the truth? The Air Force has always maintained that the X-37B is simply an experimental platform for testing reusable-space-vehicle technologies and for “operating experiments which can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.” Weeden says he thinks that really is what the X-37B is doing. “I think the primary mission is the testbed,” he says. The X-37B is a good way for the Air Force to fly new technology such as sensors into space, test it, and then examine it back on Earth. Still, reconnaissance and research are not mutually exclusive. X-37B could be doing both.

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