X-37B rocket on secret mission makes a not so secret landing

A sonic boom reverberated through Florida this weekend, and initially no one knew what caused the noise. 

Turns out it was a rocket landing after embarking on a secret mission. While the landing was anything but secretive, it was noteworthy. So what do we know about the spacecraft and what it was doing?

In IT Blogwatch, we tell what we know. 

So what is going on? Mike Bamback has some background:

The Air Force's X-37B space plane made an unexpected landing in Florida on Sunday...The unmanned mini-shuttle, which lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop an Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015, spent 718 days in orbit -- an endurance record.

What is significant about this? Justin Ray has some details:

It was the fourth flight for the unmanned test project, an enigmatic program that has used twin reusable vehicles to amass 2,086 cumulative days in space...today marked the first X-37B landing at the Kennedy Space Center and used the same shuttle landing facility runway as NASA’s manned orbiters from 1984 to 2011, signaling a long-sought programmatic evolution to consolidate both launch and landing operations at a single homeport.

But what was it doing up there? Mike Wall tells us the theories:

Most of the X-37B's...activities are classified, leading to some speculation that the space plane could be a weapon of some sort, perhaps a disabler of enemy satellites. But Air Force officials have...strongly refuted that notion.
Outside experts generally agree...it's unlikely that the X-37B is doing anything...nefarious on orbit. Some observers have suggested that...the vehicle may be testing sensors for the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the United States' fleet of spy satellites.

So is it really all speculation? Peter Dockrill reveals how little we know:

According to the Air Force, the X-37B's primary objectives are to research reusable spacecraft technologies for America's future in space, and...conduct experiments that can be returned to, and examined, on Earth.
Beyond that, officials haven't given up much actual dirt on the specifics of its orbital experiments...although...prior to the latest X-37B launch in 2015, the Air Force did disclose that one of the experiments aboard OTV-4 involved researching Hall-effect thrust propulsion, while another was a materials science project for NASA.
Beyond that, we're at a...loss to explain just what this top-secret orbital vehicle has been doing for almost two years above our heads.

Anything significant about the landing itself? People in Florida sure thought so. Roger Simmons explains why:

A sonic boom rattled Central Florida early Sunday morning...caused...[by the] X-37B unmanned mini space shuttle [landing] at [Kennedy Space Center]...Hundreds of people took to social media and contacted local media to find out what caused the big boom.
Said Cherie Doughan, who heard the noise...in Southwest Florida. “Sort of unnerving with things the way they are world wide.”

About that sonic boom -- Michelle Young was excited to hear about the rocket landing, but was concerned for her loved ones:

Awesome but you scared our puppy.

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