The mysterious X-37B space plane of the U.S. Air Force will come back to Earth this week, possibly on Tuesday. It is returning after being in orbit for 22 months on a secret mission. It is a robotic plane, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, and will land at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where Air Force officials are gearing up for its return. It carries a bevy of radars, cameras, and other sensors that might be found on regular spy satellites.
The X-37B mini-shuttle has been in orbit since December 2012 and racked up a record-shattering 671 days in space. “Team Vandenberg stands ready to implement safe landing operations for the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, the third time for this unique mission” said Col. Keith Baits, 30th Space Wing commander, in a press statement on Friday
The idea is that the X-37B carries “specialized” sensors packages that can be reconfigured as needed for each mission when the aircraft returns to Earth. That ability to reconfigure the robotic spacecraft makes the X-37B cheaper and more flexible than a satellite, which goes up once with one package of sensors and is eventually discarded. Satellites can often cost billions of dollars and cannot reconfigured or reused, unlike the X-37B.
It has been the subject of intense speculation ever since it was launched on its very first mission in April 2010 with very little explanation from the Air Force. Rumors abound that the X-37B is supposed to snatch foreign satellites or strike our enemies as an orbital bomber. The Air Force is still keeping mum.