Sonic boom rattles Central Florida as secret military space shuttle lands at Kennedy Space Center
It’s no secret that a sonic boom rattled Central Florida early Sunday morning. What caused it was a nearly 2-year-old secret military space mission that ended at Kennedy Space Center.
The U.S. Air Force confirmed that its X-37B unmanned mini space shuttle landed at KSC after spending 718 days in orbit. The spacecraft lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on May 20, 2015.
What it has been doing circling the planet all this time is the secret part that military officials won’t discuss, though many experts believe it has intelligence-gathering equipment. What the military did confirm in a news release is that mini shuttle is “an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”
This was fourth space trip for the 29-foot-long, 11,000-pound mini shuttle, but it was the first time it has landed in Florida — which is why Sunday’s sonic boom provided an unexpected wake-up call.
Hundreds of people took to social media and contacted local media to find out what caused the big boom.
“Shook our house in Davenport and drove the dog into a brief frenzy,” Patrick Reikofski posted on his Twitter account.
Jeff Savage tweeted, “Just heard a loud sonic boom here near Disney World. What was that??!!”
But it wasn’t just Central Floridians who heard the spacecraft. Reports came from as far away as Tampa and Fort Myers.
“Didn't sound from where I live [like] a sonic boom,” said Cherie Doughan, who heard the noise near Cape Haze in Southwest Florida. “Sort of unnerving with things the way they are world wide.”
Sonic booms used to be common and expected during the 30 years of NASA’s manned space shuttle program, with landings at Kennedy Space Center preceded by a loud double boom. But the last shuttle to land at KSC was Atlantis nearly six years ago when the program completed its final mission in July 2011.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket launches from the space coast also produce sonic booms, with the most recent one heard earlier this month.
But the X-37B’s booming return was unexpected. While there were rumors in February that the mini shuttle might return to Florida after its three previous flights ended at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, officials would not confirm any itinerary for the spacecraft.
Sunday morning’s homecoming was announced by the Air Force at 7:57 a.m. in a tweet: “The Air Force #X37B #OTV4 has returned from orbit and landed safely at @NASAKennedy.” Video and photos of the craft’s landing were later released.
Another mission is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral later this year. How long it will last is unknown, but the Air Force said that with “an on-orbit time of 270 days or greater, the X-37B can stay in space for much longer.”
It’s also not known if the X-37B will return to Central Florida again — but if it does, you’ll certainly hear about it.