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U.S. military sends mystery space drone back into orbit – but they STILL won't tell anyone what its mission will beBoeing's secretive X-37B space plane was launched into space on its third mission this afternoon from Cape Canaveral in Florida The $1 billion unmanned craft is on a classified mission which the U.S. Air Force who operate it will not discuss
23:36 GMT, 11 December 2012
The U.S. military launched its highly secretive unmanned $1 billion X-37B space plane into orbit today from Cape Canaveral on top of an Atlas V rocket.
The U.S. Air Force which operates the small, top-secret version of the space shuttle still will not say how long the third X-37B mission will last, nor what the vehicle will be doing in orbit.
Cloud coverage in the area had threatened to scupper today's launch, but the skies cleared sufficiently for the classified mission to take-off on time at 1.03 p.m from the Florida space center.
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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying an X-37B experimental robotic space plane, lifts off from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station today
It is the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. The craft circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.
The high-tech mystery machines – 29 feet long – are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway.
The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA's three-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency's shuttles.
The military isn't saying much if anything about this new secret mission known as OTV-3, or Orbital Test Vehicle, flight No. 3. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight and a news blackout followed.
Lift-Off: Air Force officials said the unmanned space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, provides a way to test technologies in space
But one scientific observer, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites.
He dismisses rumors of 'exotic ideas' for the X-37B as weaponry or shadowing a Chinese satellite.
While acknowledging he does not know what the spaceplane is carrying, McDowell said on-board sensors could be capable of imaging or intercepting transmissions of electronic emissions from terrorist training sites in Afghanistan or other hot spots. 'All the sorts of things that spy satellites generally do,' he said.
The beauty of a reusable spaceplane is that it can be launched on short notice based on need, McDowell said.
What's important about this flight is that it is the first reflight.
'That is pretty cool,' McDowell said, 'reusing your spacecraft after a runway landing. That's something that has only really been done with the shuttle.'
Top Secret: The Atlas 5 rocket carrying the U.S. military's X-37B spacecraft lifts off from launch complex 41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida today
This April 5, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at the Astrotech facility in Titusville Florida – this is the vehicle's second launch
Now retired museum pieces, NASA's space shuttles stretch 122 feet long, and have 78-foot wingspans and weights of more than 170,000 pounds.
They were launched, from 1981 to 2011, with two strap-on booster rockets and an external fuel tank feeding three main engines.
The X-37B wingspan is 15 feet, and the 11,000-pound, Boeing-built vessel requires the United Launch Alliance's hefty Atlas V for hoisting. It is solar powered.
The two previous secret X-37B flights were in 200-plus-mile-high orbits, circling at roughly 40-degree angles to the equator, as calculated by amateur satellite trackers. That means the craft flew over the swatch between 40 degrees or so north latitude and 40 degrees or so south latitude.
That puts Russia's far north out of the spaceplane's observing realm, McDowell noted.
'It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be being used for sensor tests over the United States,' he said.
McDowell speculates that this newest flight will follow suit.
Lift off: The X-37B sits on top of an Atlas V rocket as it's launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in 2010
The military is not saying how long the third X-37B mission will last, nor what the vehicle will be doing in orbit.
'The focus of the program remains on testing vehicle capabilities and proving the utility and cost-effectiveness of a reusable spacecraft,' Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko wrote in an email to Reuters.
While launching from Florida, the military has been landing the robotic space planes at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The agency is considering landing and refurbishing its X-37B spaceships at NASA and Air Force bases in Florida, which has been courting new customers since the retirement of NASA's space shuttles last year.
This file picture provided by the US Air Force shows personnel inspecting the X-37B, the Air Force's first unmanned re-entry spacecraft, after landing on December 3, 2010 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California
'We are investigating the possibility of using the former shuttle infrastructure for X-37B OTV landing operations and are looking into consolidating landing, refurbishment and launch operations at Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in an effort to save money,' Bunko wrote.
'Those investigations are in an early state, and any specifics will not be known for some time,' she added.
The vehicles, which were built by Boeing, are about one-fourth the size of a NASA shuttle and use solar panels to generate power, rather than chemical fuel cells that limited the space shuttles' time in orbit.
Neither NASA nor the Air Force has plans to upgrade the X-37B to carry people.
A computer graphic shows what the X-37B will look like operating in space. The craft took a decade to develop and is operated by the U.S. Air Force
This computer image shows the space plane re-entering Earth. Although it resembles a small space shuttle it is not designed to carry humans. It's wingspan is a mere 4.5m with a length of 8.9m. It is powered by batteries and solar cells
The OTV-3 flight had been delayed several months pending the results of an investigation into an upper-stage engine problem during an October 4 Delta 4 flight to put a Global Positioning System satellite into orbit.
The International Space Station, by comparison, orbits about 250 miles high but at a much steeper 51.6-degree inclination, or angle to the equator, that covers more territory.
The X-37B program, which dates back to 1999, is operated by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and geared toward space experimentation.
Some scientists – like Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists – argue the Air Force could accomplish the same objectives by using cheaper, more efficient spacecraft that either burn up on entry or parachute down.
'The ability to return to Earth carries a high price,' Grego said in a statement.
Watch Video: Profile of NASA's Highly Secretive Boeing X-37B
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