The sound of sonic booms across Central Florida marked the return to Earth of Boeing's X-37B, an autonomous spaceplane returning after more than 900 days in space on a U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force mission.
People from Cape Canaveral and as far inland as Orlando heard the rumble of the sonic booms about 5 a.m. Saturday. At first a mystery, the U.S. Space Force confirms the booms were caused by the X-37B spaceplane returning to Earth, landing on the old space shuttle runway – now called Launch and Landing Facility – at Kennedy Space Center.
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United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rocket launched X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 on May 17, 2020, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The spaceplane serves as an orbital test bed for new space technologies and has spent more than 900 days in space.
The mission called USSF-7 included several experimental payloads for NASA, including an investigation on the effects of long-duration space exposure to seeds.
USSF-7 also included research for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and U.S. Air Force Academy's FalconSat-8, which remains in orbit. The rest of the spacecraft's mission was top secret.
According to the Space Force, the vehicle touched down on Saturday at 5:22 a.m., completing its sixth mission.
Just like its mission, information on the landing of the spaceplane is also kept confidential. However, there are hints of X-37B's arrival ahead of time.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was closed early Saturday due to operations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, including roads leading into the refuge which neighbors Kennedy Space Center.
Still, until the U.S. Air Force and Space Force confirm, the best sign of a successful return home for the secret space plane is the double sonic booms as it reenters Earth's atmosphere, which is what many in Florida heard on Saturday morning.
According to Boeing, X-37B was originally designed to fly 270 days each mission, but with each flight, the spacecraft has set new records for time in orbit.
"The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes," X-37B Program Director Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen said. "The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community. The addition of the service module on OTV-6 allowed us to host more experiments than ever before."
According to Boeing, X-37B spent 908 days in orbit setting a new endurance record.
Prior to the most recent mission, the space plane was in orbit for 780 days before returning to Earth in October 2019.