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US Air Force launches second robotic space plane on mystery mission

March 6, 2011 - Washington

The United States Air Force has launched its second 37B Robotic Space Plane on Mystery Mission.

The unmanned X-37B mini-shuttle, known as Orbital Test Vehicle 2 (OTV-2) took to the skies from Cape Canaveral, tucked away in the nose cone atop a huge Atlas 5 rocket.

An Air Force Space Commander tweeted: "Liftoff of the Atlas 5 rocket and the second experimental X-37B, America's miniature military space shuttle."

The space plane got delayed a day due to bad weather conditions. Also a technical glitch caused the X-37B to miss a launch window, a faulty valve had to be replaced in a last-minute repair.

The launch marks the start of the X-37B program's second space mission. The Air Force's other X-37B plane, known as OTV-1, returned to Earth in December 2010 after a similarly mysterious seven-month maiden mission.

This spacecraft looks a bit like NASA's space shuttles. It is about 29 feet long by 15 feet wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed.

According to the Fox News reports, Air officials said that the space plane, built by Boeing for the U.S. military, can fly long, extended missions because of its solar array power system, which allows it to stay in orbit for up to nine months.

What exactly the vehicle does while circling the Earth for so long is a mystery, since the craft's payloads and missions are classified.

Concerns have been raised by China and Russia that X-37B is a space weapon, but the US Air Force has denied that charge and claim that the space plane is for testing out new hardware for instruments like sensors and guidance, control and navigation systems.

Brian Weeden a former Air Force orbital analyst said: "It gives the Air Force the ability to test-fly some of this hardware."

Weeden suspects the X-37B is testing gear for the National Reconnaissance Office, the intelligence agency that builds and operates the U.S.'s spy satellites.


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