Sonic booms heard across Florida as Space Force’s secretive X-37B plane makes landing
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – A secretive Space Force spaceplane streaked across Florida early Saturday, generating unmistakable sonic booms en route to a landing at Kennedy Space Center that wrapped up another record-breaking mission.
Dozens of sonic boom reports surfaced as X-37B, a robotic military spacecraft that looks like a miniature space shuttle, followed an eastern path across the state and eventually landed at KSC's Launch and Landing Facility. In a statement, the Space Force confirmed touchdown occurred at 5:22 a.m. EST.
All told, the 30-foot spaceplane spent 908 days in low-Earth orbit, shattering the previous record of 780 days. Its purpose is largely a secret, but the Department of Defense says some of its secondary duties include hosting military research payloads, science experiments, and even NASA investigations.
Though physically small, X-37B has captured countless headlines since its first launch in 2010, mainly due to secrecy but also because of its unprecedented ability to stay in orbit years at a time. It also has the ability to stealthily change its position in orbit.
The spacecraft launches vertically on rockets like United Launch Alliance's Atlas V and SpaceX's Falcon 9, then lands like a plane at KSC. This specific mission, labeled OTV-6, took flight on an Atlas V rocket in May 2020.
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"With the successful completion of its sixth mission the reusable spaceplane has now flown over 1.3 billion miles and spent a total of 3,774 days in space," Boeing, which built both X-37Bs in service, said in a statement. "It conducts experiments for government and industry partners with the ability to return them to Earth for evaluation."
Boeing operates an X-37B processing facility next to the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC, which is only about two miles from the LLF's runway in a straight line. After landing, the spaceplanes are transported to the hangar there, processed, then prepped for liftoff on another rocket.
Some of OTV-6's payloads, according to Boeing and the Space Force, included:
A new service module to increase the number of payloads carried to orbit.
An experiment that harnessed solar power and transmitted it back to Earth in the form of microwave energy.
An opportunity for Air Force Academy cadets to design, build, and deploy a satellite before joining the Space Force.
And NASA investigations into how space exposure affects materials and seeds, the latter of which could impact how food is grown during long crewed missions.
"The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community," Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen, the Space Force's X-37B program director, said in a release. "The addition of the service module on OTV-6 allowed us to host more experiments than ever before.”
Space Florida, the state's aerospace finance and development authority, operates the LLF and its 15,000-foot runway – one of the longest in the world. It used to host space shuttle landings as the Shuttle Landing Facility, or SLF.
"Space Florida congratulates our U.S. military on another successful return of the X-37B, its third landing at our Launch and Landing Facility," said Frank DiBello, CEO of Space Florida. "This return further underscores the capabilities of Space Florida’s LLF that are ideal for both Department of Defense and commercial missions alike."
Contact Emre Kelly at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Florida gets sonic booms as Space Force's secret spaceplane lands