Air Force X-37B 'Mini' Shuttle Prepares To Land

Nine months after its launch, the unmanned space vehicle is scheduled to return to Earth this weekend after its first secret mission.

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The Air Force is preparing for the first landing of a secret military craft that's meant to be a smaller, unmanned version of NASA's space shuttles.

The X-37B, or Orbital Test Vehicle 1, is expected to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base between Friday and next Monday, Dec. 6, according to the Air Force Space Command. The landing is subject to technical and weather considerations, the Air Force said.

The Air Force launched the vehicle -- likened to a miniature robotic space shuttle, minus the human passengers -- on April 22 for a nine-month mission.

Other than its size -- about a quarter of a typical NASA space shuttle -- the duration of the mission is evidence of another difference in the two types of vehicles. The X-37B can spend much longer in space orbit than its predecessors: up to nine months as opposed to about two weeks.

While remaining relatively mum on the specifics of the craft's inaugural mission, the Air Force said when it launched the X-37B that the shuttle was testing new equipment, sensors and materials in space, with the goal of using them in satellites and other systems.

The military also hinted that the mini-shuttle would somehow be used to support soldiers in the field, but did not elaborate on those plans.

NASA started the X-37B project in the late 1990s, but the military later took it over. The Air Force plans to fly another X-37B mission early next year.