Air Force spaceplane returns to Earth after 780-day mission

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — An unpiloted Air Force X-37B spaceplane, one of two winged orbiters used to carry out classified research, made a surprise landing at the Kennedy Space Center early Sunday to close out a record 780-day mission. It was the fifth flight in the secretive Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) program, pushing total time aloft to 2,865 days.

“This program continues to push the envelope as the (Air Force’s) only reusable space vehicle,” Randy Walden, director of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “With a successful landing today, the X-37B completed its longest flight to date and successfully completed all mission objectives.”

The unpiloted orbiters, built by Boeing, are based on the same lifting body design used for the space shuttle and they fly a similar re-entry trajectory to a runway touchdown.