Cloaked in a bit of mystery and more than a little speculation, the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B robotic space plane touched down in California this weekend after 15 months in orbit.
Originally used by NASA, but handed over to the Air Force after funding ran out, this is actually one of two space craft built by Boeing and stayed in space more than twice as long as its counterpart.
Mike Wall at Space reports that while the X-37B looks a lot the the recently retired space shuttle it is far smaller — 29 feet long and 15 feet wide — with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. Two of them, he says, could fit inside the payload bay of the shuttle.
The remote craft stayed in orbit far longer than anyone expected fueling speculation, notably from China, that it was some sort of space weapon.
The reality could be something far less mysterious, as some industry officials speculate the X-37B could simply have been up there flexing its credentials and hoping to stave off impending budget cuts.
David Axe at Danger Room points out that with the Air Force struggling to pay for new planes, and Boeing shutting down its California manufacturing facility where the hand-crafted X-37Bs are produced, the space plane’s future may be less than secure.
Meanwhile China is not allowing the U.S. much breathing room in the burgeoning program and has produced its own space plane, the Shenlong which is progressing much faster than anyone expected.
The video of the X-37B’s landing is initially shot in infraded, where you can see the heat it still retains from passing through the atmosphere, before switching to the visible spectrum.
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