Air Force launches mystery spacecraft
It’s the third flight of an X-37B, which is only 29 feet long.
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. — 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 Tuesday on top of an Atlas V rocket. As if on cue, clouds swallowed up the rocket as it disappeared out over the ocean.
It is the second flight for this original X-37B space plane. 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 onequarter 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 3-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency’s shuttles.
The military isn’t saying much if anything about this new secret mis- sion 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.
But one scientific observer, Jonathan McDowell of the HarvardSmithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the space plane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a test bed for future satellites. He dismisses rumors of “exotic ideas” for the X-37B such as weaponry or shadowing a Chinese satellite.
While acknowledging he does not know what the space plane 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 space plane 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.”
An Atlas V rocket carrying an X-37B experimental robotic space plane lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Tuesday.