US launches secret 'mini-shuttle'

Last updated 11:11 12/12/2012
Reuters

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

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

Relevant offers

World

Swaziland 'Reed Dance' festival continues despite calls to mourn dead girls Bangkok police seek 2 new suspects after bomb material found After daughter killed on live television, dad vows to end gun violence Barack Obama to restore Mt McKinley's native name Boko Haram murder 56 in remote Nigerian village Egyptian elections called in effort to bring back democracy Scuffle between Israeli soldier and Palestinian youth sparks criticism 10 years after Katrina, family that fled is in need of rescue again China ready to launch military power from artificial islands in South China Sea Spy agencies mining Ashley Madison data for blackmail material

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.

Ad Feedback

- AP

Special offers

Featured Promotions

Sponsored Content