A classified U.S. Air Force spaceplane spent 718 days in orbit before coming down at Kennedy Space Center on May 7, causing a sonic boom that was heard across central Florida, according to Popular Mechanics.
The reusable X-37B spacecraft is built by Boeing and launches on Atlas V rockets for extended missions in orbit. The spaceplane, similar in appearance to the Space Shuttle but only 29 feet long, needs no cockpit or life support systems, and can operate in orbit for hundreds of days at a time. The craft’s previous record was 674 days.
This month was the first time that the craft has landed in Florida –all three of its previous landings were in California. Another mission using the X-37B is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral later this year, according to Popular Mechanics.
The description of the classified spacecraft on the Air Force website reads: “Managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program is the newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft that performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.”
According to Popular Mechanics, it widely has been speculated that the spaceplane is used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, spying on operations in places like Iran and North Korea. Experts also have guessed that the X-37B could be used for testing autonomous flight technologies, serve as a communications relay in orbit, or serve as a testing platform for systems that could ultimately be used on a manned spacecraft.