Science

A sonic boom rips through Florida as a Space Force X-37B aircraft returns

A sonic boom rips through Florida as a Space Force X-37B aircraft returns

A sonic boom rips through Florida as a Space Force X-37B aircraft returns

It was just after 5am when her house woke up. Her chickens squawked. Her cats scattered. Her dogs hid under the covers. And Nancy the Planet was sitting up straight in bed, wondering: What’s that sound?

People across Florida were awakened early Saturday morning by the sound of the X-37B returning to Earth after a record 908 days in orbit.

Reports of a sonic boom were widespread, from Titusville to Tampa, as the US Space Force’s autonomous vehicle touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Brevard County at 5:22 a.m.

Planeta, who is 52 and lives in north Pasco County, scoured Facebook and local news for answers in the early morning haze. Garbage collection? Gunshots? Exercises at MacDill? Her father was in the Air Force, she said, so after recovering from the initial shock, she quickly recognized the boom as an audible one. It took her animals longer to pull themselves together.

“They’re used to quiet country life,” she said Sunday morning.

In a statement, Boeing, which built the X-37B, said the craft has now flown more than 1.3 billion miles, spending 3,774 days in space while conducting experiments for the government and its partners.

One experiment, in partnership with the US Naval Research Laboratory, involved converting solar energy into microwave energy. The second aimed to test the durability of certain materials exposed to space conditions to ultimately improve the accuracy of models of the space environment.

“This mission underscores the Space Force’s focus on collaborative space exploration and expanding low-cost access to space for our partners, inside and outside the Department of the Air Force,” U.S. Space Force Gen. and Chief of Space Operations Chance Saltzman said in a statement.

The X-37B was developed by NASA as a testbed for a future spacecraft. Today, it is jointly operated by the Space Force and the Air Force Rapid Capability Office. The US Space Force is believed to have two X-37B vehicles, which measure 29 feet nose to tail and are somewhere between a pickup truck and a school bus in length.

The X-37B was launched into orbit from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on May 17, 2020, when Donald Trump was president — roughly two months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Its sixth mission was four months longer than any previous X-37B flight.

“This return further underscores the capabilities of Space Florida’s Launch and Landing Facility, which are ideal for both Department of Defense and commercial missions,” Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s space finance and development authority, said in a statement.

In Bithl, located in Orange County, about 30 miles west of the Kennedy Space Center, Carlos and Johanna Alfonso captured the boom with their doorbell camera.

“The walls were shaking, the glass was shaking, the whole house was shaking,” said Johana (55).

They ventured outside after waking up to say that a strange sulfur-smelling mist hung in the air.

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On the Gulf Coast, Peter Anderson also awoke to a strange sound rumbling through the still dark sky.

“Did I imagine that?” The 37-year-old Sarasota resident recalled thinking.

Unable to sleep, he said he pulled out his phone, opened Twitter and browsed online chatter about the X-37B. He follows space developments casually, so he heard about the plane, but he had no idea that its nearly 30-month-long orbit was coming to an end.

“It would be nice if we were aware of these things,” he said.



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