Friday, April 23, 2010

Air Force Launches Secretive Space Plane; ‘We Don’t Know When It’s Coming Back’

Via (Danger Room) -

The Air Force launched a secretive space plane into orbit last night from Cape Canaveral, Florida. And they’re not sure when it’s returning to Earth.

Perched atop an Atlas V rocket, the Air Force’s unmanned and reusable X-37B made its first flight after a decade in development shrouded in mystery; most of the mission goals remain unknown to the public.

The Air Force has fended off statements calling the X-37B a space weapon, or a space-based drone to be used for spying or delivering weapons from orbit. In a conference call with reporters, deputy undersecretary for the Air Force for space programs Gary Payton, space programs did acknowledge much of the current mission is classified. But perhaps the most intriguing answer came when he was asked by a reporter wanting to cover the landing as to when the X-37B would be making its way back to the planet.

“In all honesty, we don’t know when it’s coming back for sure,” Payton said.

Payton went on to say that the timing depends on how the experiments and testing progress during the flight. Though he declined to elaborate on the details. The vague answer did little to quell questions about the ultimate purpose of the X-37B test program.

At only 29 feet long, the X-37B is roughly one fourth the size of the space shuttle. It’s onboard batteries and solar arrays (pictured at left from it’s NASA days) can keep it operating for up to nine months according to the Air Force. It is similar to the shuttle with payload doors exposing a cargo area, and uses a similar reentry procedure before gliding to a runway. In the case of the X-37B, the vehicle will autonomously return to earth and land itself using an onboard autopilot. The primary landing spot is Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

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