The pilotless X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which looks like a miniature version of the space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., in March 2011, it garnered international attention.
After orbiting the Earth for more than 14 months on a top-secret mission, an experimental space drone landed 16 June 2012 on an airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base northwest of Santa Barbara.
Although the X-37B program is “classified,” some of the particulars are known. More than 10 years ago, it began as a NASA program to test new technologies for the space shuttle.
The spacecraft is about 29 feet long, or about the size of a small school bus, with stubby wings that stretch out about 15 feet tip to tip. It is one-fifth the size of the space shuttle and can draw on the sun for electricity using unfolding solar panels. It is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days.
The X-37B that landed is the second launched by the military. The first X-37B was launched in April 2010, and it landed 224 days later on its own — fully automated — at Vandenberg.
That mission was also shrouded in mystery. Due to its clandestine nature, some industry analysts have theorized the X-37B could be a precursor to an orbiting weapon, capable of dropping bombs or disabling foreign satellites as it circles the globe.