Watch US military’s top secret mini space plane landing back on Earth

A top secret US robot space plane landed back on Earth after a 22-month orbit, officials said, although the craft’s mission remains shrouded in mystery.

The unmanned X- 37B, which looks like a miniature space shuttle, glided into the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California after having launched on Dec 11, 2012, on a mission that military officers say is still strictly secret.

“I’m extremely proud of our team for coming together to execute this third safe and successful landing." - Commander Keith Balts of the US military’s 30th Space Wing, after the 9.24 am (12.04am Saturday Singapore time) landing.

Analysts say the X- 37B could be a platform for spying from space, including possibly snooping on other countries’ satellites.

But officials have previously denied the project had anything to do with creating a “space weapon” that could knock down other satellites.

The Air Force says the X- 37B can test technology for “reusable” spacecraft and conduct unspecified experiments that can be studied on Earth.

Longest flight

The latest mission was the third and the longest so far for the vehicle. An initial flight launched in 2010 lasted about eight months and a second flight had the spacecraft in orbit for more than 15 months.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 3 space plane is shown after landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California Oct 17, 2014.  Photo: Reuters/Boeing/Vandenberg Air Force Base/Handout

The secret plane, manufactured by aerospace giant Boeing, weighs five tonnes and measures about 8.8m long, with a wing span of roughly 4.5m across.

Traveling at speeds 25 times faster than the speed of sound, the vehicle is launched into space on the back of a rocket and, once its mission is complete, returns from orbit like a plane.

But, unlike NASA’s civilian shuttle, it has two stabilisers in the rear instead of one, forming a “V” shape.

Sources: ​AFP, YouTube/30th Space Wing/Vandenberg AFB