US Military Space Plane Returns to Earth After Nearly Two Years

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An unmanned US plane on a top-secret, two-year mission to space has returned to Earth and landed in California.

The aircraft, resembling a miniature space shuttle and known as the Orbital Test Vehicle or X-37B, spent 674 days in orbit around the planet.

It was the unmanned plane’s third space flight, but its mission has been shrouded in mystery.

A theory that it was taking a look at China’s space lab has been downplayed by experts.

Air Force officials have only told US media the aircraft performs “risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies”.

The X-37B programme, started in 1999 and is currently run by the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

The first plane flew in April 2010 and returned after eight months. The second launched in March 2011 and remained in space for 15 months.

The current aircraft – built by Boeing – uses solar panels for power in orbit, measures over 29ft (9m) long, has a wingspan of nearly 15ft and a weight of 11,000lbs (4,989 kg).

It looks like a mini space shuttle and can glide back down through the atmosphere to land on a runway, just like Nasa’s re-usable manned spaceplane used to do before its retirement.

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SOURCE: BBC