Air Force launches mys­tery space­craft

It’s the third flight of an X-37B, which is only 29 feet long.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By mar­cia Dunn

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.”

JOHN RAOUX / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An Atlas V rocket car­ry­ing an X-37B ex­per­i­men­tal robotic space plane lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion in Florida on Tues­day.

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