Experimental US Air Force spacecraft returns with a boom after two-year mission

8 May 2017

US Air Force crew in protective gear after the landing of the X-37B. Image: US Air Force

A spacecraft unlike any other has returned after a two-year mission, scaring Florida locals with a series of powerful sonic booms.

Those living in the surroundings of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida were awoken by a deafening noise yesterday morning (7 May), prompting a flurry of questions on social media.

However, just a few minutes after they occurred, the US Air Force confirmed that the sonic booms were the result of one of its most experimental spacecraft breaking the sound barrier on its return to Earth.

Three years ago, this same mysterious craft was spotted flying over US skies and was eventually revealed as the Boeing X-37B.

The uncrewed aerial vehicle (UAV) was originally a NASA concept design dating back to 1999 but, after years of stagnation, it was passed on to the US Air Force, resulting in Boeing producing its first prototype in 2010.

Now the military has revealed, unbeknownst to most of us, that the craft has spent the last two years (718 days) orbiting the Earth. It also confirmed its safe arrival on the runway at the Kennedy Space Center.

Advanced but mysterious purpose

Marking the first spacecraft touchdown at the runway in six years, the X-37B is one of the most advanced aircraft out there, with an array of advanced computer systems and solar power devices.

The US Air Force said that the UAV performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

While much of the craft’s activities remain secret, CBS News said that previous X-37B missions have tested all sorts of highly experimental technology, including an engine that produces thrust using electrically charged xenon ions.

“Today marks an incredibly exciting day for the 45th Space Wing as we continue to break barriers,” said brigadier general Wayne Monteith.

“Our team has been preparing for this event for several years, and I am extremely proud to see our hard work and dedication culminate in today’s safe and successful landing of the X-37B.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic