A secret Air Force space plane launched on an Atlas V Thursday night at 7:52 p.m. EDT (2352 GMT) on a classified mission. The vehicle, the umanned X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, looks like a mini space shuttle and has the capability to remain in orbit for 270 days. The purpose of this vehicle – for this mission and for the future – is unknown, but the Air Force says this newest and most advanced re-entry spacecraft will demonstrate autonomous orbital flight, reentry and landing.
Although the mission is secret, the launch was open to the media and was webcast live by the United Launch Alliance, and included live Twitter updates from the Air Force Space Command. Shortly after main engine cutoff, however, the webcast ended and no more updates were provided about the rocket and the vehicle’s activities.
The mission duration has not been disclosed, but the Air Force said technologies to be tested during the flight include advanced guidance, navigation and control, thermal protection systems, avionics, high temperature structures and seals, reusable insulation and lightweight electromechanical flight systems.
Liftoff occurred on time; and the stages separated 4 minutes and 31 seconds into the flight, and engine cutoff came at about 17 minutes after launch.
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The X-37B is 9 meters long and 4.5 meter wide (29 X 15 ft) and its payload bay is 2.1 by 1.2 meters (7 by 4 feet). The vehicle was built at Boeing Phantom Works, based on an orbital and re-entry demonstrator design initially developed by NASA, then handed over to the Pentagon.
Rumors of an X-37B launch have been circulating since 2008.
Originally the vehicle was scheduled for launch in from the payload bay of the Space Shuttle , but that plan was axed following the Columbia accident.
Comparing the X-37B to the space shuttle, the orbiters 56 meters (184 feet) long, has a wingspan of 23 meters (78 feet), and weighs 2 million kg (4.5 million pounds.)
The space shuttle can haul payloads up to 29,500 pounds, while the OTV can only handle up to 226 kg (500 pounds.)
The X37-B will land on a runway in California and will be controlled remotely from the ground. In the future, the Air Force said they hope to conduct experiments and rendezvous with other spacecraft.
Enjoy more launch images from Alan Walters: