First Landing Photos: Secret X-37B Robot Space Plane Lands in Calif.

The U.S. AirForce's mysterious X-37B robot space plane returned to Earth today (Dec. 3) witha successful landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California before sunrise.

Air Forceofficials hailed the unmanned X-37Bspace plane's successful landing, though its mission remains shrouded insecrecy because of its classified nature. But Vandenberg's 30th Space Wing didnot shy from snapping photos of the X-37B vehicle, known as the Orbital TestVehicle 1. Take a look at those first photos below:

Nose to Nose: X-37B space plane builder Boeing released this photo of the unmanned spacecraft just after its landing on Dec. 3, 2010.

The spacecraft spent 220 days in space before gliding to a predawn landing at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

See a video of the X-37B landing here.

HomeAgain: Despite itsrobotic nature, the X-37B space plane received a warm welcome from Air Forcecrews at Vandenberg.

Here, the vehicle appears to be undergoing safingprocedures after landing on Dec. 3 at 1:16 a.m. PST (0916 GMT).

Significantweathering, or discoloration, can be seen on the spacecraft's upper thermalblanket insulation.

X-37B inProfile: An AirForce photographer snapped this profile view of the X-37B shortly after itsDec. 3 landing.

The X-37B isabout 29 feet (9 meters) long and has a wingspan of just over 14 feet (4meters) across. It stands just over 9 1/2 feet (3 meters) tall and weighsnearly 11,000 pounds (about 5,000 kg). For comparison: Two X-37B vehicles,arranged in a line nose to aft, could fit in the payload bay of a NASA spaceshuttle. Boeing's Phantom Works division in Seal Beach, Calif., built thespacecraft.

This SPACE.comgraphic of the X-37B depicts the characteristics and capabilities of theunmanned space plane.

Up Closeand Personal: A crewof vehicle handlers clad in suits to protect against hazardous materials (likeany remaining rocket fuel) approach the X-37B robot space plane after itssuccessful Dec. 3 landing at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

X-37BWalkaround: Thisphoto released by the Air Force shows the nose of the mysterious X-37B spaceplane as recovery crews take measurements and other readings after its Dec. 3landing at Vandenberg. The X-37B's unique V-shaped "ruddervators" ?which serve as its tail stabilizers ? are visible as well as a deployed airbrake. [Gallery- The Air Force's X-37B Space Plane]

PayloadBay Doors: Here, theX-37B space plane is seen in profile as post-landing work continues. The logosof Boeing and the Air Force are visible on the reusable spacecraft's hull. Theyappear between lines that outline the X-37B's payload bay, which is about thesize of a pickup truck bed and can hold experiments, small satellites and asolar array panel that it used to generate power.

WelcomeHome: This X-37Bspace plane's payload bay is seen clearly in this side view, as is the scale ofthe spacecraft compared to a human. [Videoof the X-37B in space]

The X-37Bbegan its life in 1999 as a NASA project, then transferred to the Pentagon'sDARPA office in 2004. The Air Force took over in 2006. This mission launched onApril 22, 2010. The flight's purpose and cost are classified.

Looking Up: This side view of the X-37B was taken by a Boeing photographer, revealing the grooved runway of Vandenberg Air Force Base where the robotic space plane landed today. An army of Vandenberg workers replaced hundreds of small steel plates on the runwary to smooth it out in order to avoid damage to the X-37B's tires during landing, according to the Santa Maria Times newspaper.

Job WellDone: With the firstX-37B spacecraft back on Earth, the Air Force is now looking ahead to the nextlaunch. The Air Force has ordered the construction of a second X-37B ? theOrbital Test Vehicle 2 ? for a mission to launch in the spring of 2011.

You canfollow Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik.


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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.