US Air Force space plane lands after 2-year secret mission

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., May 7 (Reuters) - The U.S. military's experimental X-37B space plane landed on Sunday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, completing a classified mission that lasted nearly two years, the Air Force said.

The unmanned X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, touched down at 7:47 a.m. EDT (1147 GMT) on a runway formerly used for landings of the now-mothballed space shuttles, the Air Force said in an email.

The Boeing-built space plane blasted off in May 2015 from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard an Atlas 5 rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

The X-37B, one of two in the Air Force fleet, conducted unspecified experiments for more than 700 days while in orbit. It was the fourth and lengthiest mission so far for the secretive program, managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The orbiters "perform risk reduction, experimentation and concept-of-operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies," the Air Force has said without providing details. The cost of the program is also classified.

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The Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit group promoting the peaceful exploration of space, says the secrecy surrounding the X-37B suggests the presence of intelligence-related hardware being tested or evaluated aboard the craft.

The vehicles are 29 feet (9 meters) long and have a wingspan of 15 feet, making them about one quarter of the size of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's now-retired space shuttles.

The X-37B, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, first flew in April 2010 and returned after eight months. A second mission launched in March 2011 and lasted 15 months, while a third took flight in December 2012 and returned after 22 months.

Sunday's landing was the X-37B's first in Florida. The three previous landings took place at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The Air Force relocated the program in 2014, taking over two of NASA's former shuttle-processing hangars.

The Air Force intends to launch the fifth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, located just south of the Kennedy Space Center, later this year.

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X-37B, the US military's secretive space plane
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X-37B, the US military's secretive space plane
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility in April 2010, in Titusville, Fla. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft. (Courtesy photo) (Photo by DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
Launch of Atlas V OTV3 from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL. December 11, 2012 (Photo by DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle sits on the runway during post-landing operations Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The X-37B conducted on-orbit experiments for more than 220 days during its maiden voyage. It fired its orbital maneuver engine in low-earth orbit to perform an autonomous reentry before landing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Stonecypher) (Photo by DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Air Force's first unmanned re-entry spacecraft, X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, landed at 1:16 a.m. Dec. 3, 2010, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. The X-37B conducted on-orbit experiments for more than 220 days during its maiden voyage. (U.S. Air Force photo/Michael Stonecypher) (Photo by DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility in April 2010, in Titusville, Fla. Air Force officials are scheduled to launch the X-37B April 21, 2010, at Cape Canaveral Air Station, Fla. The X-37B is the U.S.'s newest and most advanced unmanned re-entry spacecraft. (Courtesy photo) (Photo by DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
Launch of Atlas V OTV3 from Cape Canaveral AFS, FL. December 11, 2012 (Photo by DoD/Corbis via Getty Images)
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