Air Force sends mystery mini-shuttle back to space
BY MARCIA DUNN AP Aerospace Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
12/12/12 at 4:13 AM
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) - The military's small, top-secret version of the space shuttle rocketed into orbit Tuesday for a repeat mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.
The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft on top of an Atlas V rocket. As if on cue, clouds quickly swallowed up the rocket as it disappeared out over the ocean.
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.
These 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.
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.
The X-37B program, which dates back to 1999, is operated by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office and geared toward space experimentation.
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.
Original Print Headline: Air Force sends mini-shuttle back to space