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X-37B Launch: Air Force sends mystery mini-shuttle back to space

2:25 PM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
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Video: Air Force launches top-secret mini-space shuttle

An Atlas V rocket carrying the X-37B mini-shuttle blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 1:03 p.m. on Tuesday December 11, 2012.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP/Florida Today) - A top-secret mini-space shuttle has blasted off from Cape Canaveral.

The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday aboard an Atlas V rocket. Cloud coverage in the area threatened to scrub the launch all day, but the weather cleared just enough for an on-time liftoff at 1:03 p.m. at Launch Complex 41.

VIDEO: Watch the X-37B launch

The Atlas rocket and its Centaur upper stage performed flawlessly through the first 17 minutes and 34 seconds. The mission then switched into a classified mode, and an information blackout followed.

That's Standard Operating Procedure for classified military missions launched from Cape Canaveral. 

It's the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. It circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.

These mystery machines are about one-quarter the size of NASA's old space shuttles and they can land automatically on a runway.

The military isn't saying much if anything about this new secret mission. 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.

The two previous secret flights were in roughly 200-plus-mile-high orbits.

The X-37B is capable of autonomous atmospheric reentry and landing, and the first two missions concluded on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Air Force officials say there is a chance the third mission will culminate with a landing on the shuttle runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

The service also is considering consolidating X-37B launch, landing and turn-around operations on Florida's Space Coast.

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