The US Air Force’s X-37B space plane has touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center almost two years after its launch, smashing its own record for the longest time in space as its mission remains veiled in secrecy.
The unpiloted plane, which looks like a miniature space shuttle, came back to Earth on Sunday, wrapping up its 780-day-long stint in orbit. Originally built to spend up to 240 days in space, the top secret aircraft has so far conducted five missions, each lasting longer than the previous one.
This time was no exception, as the X-37B surpassed its previous record, set on May 7, 2017, by 62 days.
The mysterious plane, with the exact objectives of its missions being subject to speculation, landed at the Shuttle Landing Facility of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 7:51am GMT, the Air Force said in a statement.
“The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the US Space Force,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said, celebrating another milestone in the clandestine project’s development.
The project initially began as a NASA study into the development of cost-savvy reusable space shuttles, but has since has expanded significantly, turning into a top-secret military project.
There have been rumors that the mission might evolve around helping the Air Force to design some sort of futuristic reconnaissance technology such as micro spy satellites able to “vanish” in the blink of an eye.
The Air Force’s statement, although not giving much detail as to the nature of the many experiments performed by the X-37B, only fueled such speculation.
“This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites,” Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director, said in the statement.
“The distinctive ability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth is unique to the X-37B program and enables the US to more efficiently and effectively develop space capabilities necessary to maintain superiority in the space domain.”
This was the first time that the US government has opted for Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket to propel the “space plane” into orbit. The launch took place on September 7, 2017 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. The sixth mission is set to be launched next year.