US launches secret 'mini-shuttle'

Last updated 11:11 12/12/2012

An unmanned Atlas rocket carrying a military experimental space plane lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

LIFT OFF: A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket carrying the US military's X-37B spacecraft lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

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The US military's small, top-secret version of the space shuttle has rocketed into orbit for another mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.

The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday (overnight NZT) hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket.

It's the second flight for this X-37B spaceplane, which 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 - 8m long - are about one-quarter the size of the US space agency's old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway.

The military isn't saying much, if anything, about this new mission. Launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight.

But one scientific observer, Harvard University's 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.

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.

The beauty of a reusable spaceplane is that it can be launched on short notice based on need, McDowell said.

The two previous secret flights were in orbits roughly 321km high, circling at roughly 40-degree angles to the equator. That means the craft flew over the swath between 40 degrees or so north latitude and 40 degrees or so south latitude.

McDowell speculates that this newest flight will follow suit.

"It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be being used for sensor tests over the United States," McDowell said.

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- AP

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