The BBC reports

The unpiloted X-37B touched down at a US Air Force base in California at 0116 PST (0916 GMT).

The project has been shrouded in secrecy, prompting widespread speculation about the craft’s purpose.

The Air Force has not said whether it carried anything in its cargo bay, but insists the primary purpose of the mission was to test the craft itself.

The X-37B was launched atop an Atlas 5 rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on 22 April, with a maximum mission duration of 270 days.

At 9m (29ft) long and with a 4.5m (15ft) wingspan, the reusable spaceplane is about one-quarter the size of the shuttle, with a large engine mounted at the rear of the ship for changing orbit.

The vehicle returned to Earth on “auto-pilot”; the successful return marks the first autonomous re-entry and landing in the recorded history of the US space programme.


“Today’s landing culminates a successful mission based on close teamwork between the 30th Space Wing, Boeing and the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office,” said Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager from the AFRCO. “We are very pleased that the program completed all the on-orbit objectives for the first mission.”

The Air Force banned media from covering the secret vehicle’s landing and had not released any photos of the vehicle at Vandenberg six hours after its arrival. Road blocks reportedly were erected around the airfield to keep anyone with access to Vandenberg from being near the site when the vehicle returned.

Prior to landing, the vehicle fired its orbital maneuver engine for re-entry using its autopilot system.

The successful de-orbit and landing signal the transition from the demonstration phase to a refurbishment stage, Air Force officials said.

The Air Force is preparing to launch the next X-37B, OTV-2, in spring 2011 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. aboard an Atlas 5 rocket.

Update, after landing photos https://www.suasnews.com/2010/12/2948/x-37b-after-landing-photos/

By Gary Mortimer

Founder and Editor of sUAS News | Gary Mortimer has been a commercial balloon pilot for 25 years and also flies full-size helicopters. Prior to that, he made tea and coffee in air traffic control towers across the UK as a member of the Royal Air Force.