Air Force's Secret Robot Space Plane Blasts Off

For an unknown mission

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted Dec 11, 2012 5:09 PM CST

(Newser) – Who says America doesn't have a space program anymore? Sure the shuttle's gone, but the military is keeping the dream alive—and classified. The Air Force today launched its top-secret unmanned space shuttle alternative into orbit on a mysterious mission, the AP reports. The vessel, dubbed the X-37B, took off from Cape Canaveral on the back of an Atlas V rocket, and quickly disappeared into the clouds. It's the second flight for this particular spaceship; in its inaugural 2010 mission, it circled the earth for seven months.

A second X-37B spent more than a year in orbit. What the drones are doing up there is the secret part; the public commentary on today's launch cut off 17 minutes into the flight, and a news blackout followed. One scientific observer speculates that the X-37B likely does "all the sorts of things that spy satellites generally do." What makes today's flight noteworthy in his mind is that it's the first time a ship other than the shuttle has managed to make a second trip into space. "That is pretty cool," he says, "reusing your spacecraft after a runway landing."

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, Dec. 11, 2012.
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, Dec. 11, 2012.   (John Raoux)
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is seen during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla.
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is seen during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla.   ((AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA))
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, Fla.
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, Fla.   ((AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA))
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, Dec. 11, 2012.
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, Dec. 11, 2012.   (John Raoux)
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, Dec. 11, 2012.
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, Dec. 11, 2012.   (John Raoux)
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