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Space plane starts classified mission

An experimental robotic space plane was launched into orbit atop an Atlas V rocket Tuesday for a classified Air Force mission that could last more than nine months.

The 19-story Atlas V and the space plane, dubbed the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida just after 10 a.m. Pacific time.

The unmanned X-37B, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, is 29 feet long with a wingspan of 15 feet. The spacecraft draws solar power for energy using unfolding panels.

While the Air Force has said the space plane is designed to stay in orbit for 270 days, it hasn’t said much about the overall mission. It has said only that the vehicle provides a way to test new technologies in outer space.

One scientific observer, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the space plane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites. He dismisses rumors of “exotic ideas” for the X-37B 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. “All the sorts of things that spy satellites generally do,” he said.

The beauty of a reusable space plane is that it can be launched on short notice based on need, McDowell said.

This is the third time that the Air Force will send an X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle into orbit.

The first X-37B was launched in April 2010 and landed 224 days later on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base, northwest of Santa Barbara, Calif. The second X-37B spent 469 days in space.

The X-37B vehicles were built by Boeing Co. in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Associated Press contributed to this report.


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