Sonic booms heard in Florida caused by secret spaceplane returning to Earth

Florida residents lit up social media on Saturday after hearing the sound of sonic booms and not knowing what caused them. Turns out, Boeing's X-37B – an autonomous spaceplane that spent over 900 days in space on a U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force mission – had secretly returned to Earth.

Residents from Jacksonville and as far inland as Orlando heard the sonic booms around 5 a.m. It was a mystery to many since the return of the X-37B wasn't announced, causing residents to seek answers online. 

"Glad to know I wasn't going through a break-in this morning in the 5 o'clock hour here in Orlando, Florida because...dang, what a startling rumble that was," said one person on Twitter. 

Matt Collins in Orlando said, "Just heard a sonic boom in the Orlando area. No launch scheduled right now."

"I heard a triple boom at 5:15 am in Haines City, FL. I thought someone jumped on my roof!"

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"What is going on in Florida right now?" K Mueller tweeted. "Had #HurricaneNicole earlier this week and btw it’s November. Only to wake up at 5:15am to a #SonicBoom caused supposedly by a military spacecraft that is super classified. What a week I’ve had."

The X-37B spaceplane returned to Earth, landing on the old space shuttle runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on Nov. 12, 2022, at 05:22 a.m., completing its sixth mission. It spent a new endurance record after spending 908 days in orbit.

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The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle-6 launched on May 17, 2020, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission – called USSF-7 – included several experimental payloads for NASA, including an investigation on the effects of long-duration space exposure to seeds. USSF-7 also included research for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and U.S. Air Force Academy's FalconSat-8, which remains in orbit. The rest of the spacecraft's mission was top secret.

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Information on the landing of the spaceplane is also kept confidential. However, there are hints of X-37B's arrival ahead of time.

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was closed early Saturday due to operations at NASA's Kennedy Space Center, including roads leading into the refuge which neighbors Kennedy Space Center.

The U.S. Air Force and Space Force did not confirm the landing immediately, but the best sign of a successful return home for the secret spaceplane is the double sonic booms as it reenters Earth's atmosphere, which is what many in Florida heard on Saturday morning. 

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According to Boeing, X-37B was originally designed to fly 270 days each mission, but with each flight, the spacecraft has set new records for time in orbit. 

"The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes," X-37B Program Director Lt. Col. Joseph Fritschen said. "The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community. The addition of the service module on OTV-6 allowed us to host more experiments than ever before."

Prior to the most recent mission, the spaceplane was in orbit for 780 days before returning to Earth in October 2019.

FOX Weather contributed to this report.