Secretive U.S. Space Mission Launches [Video]

An unmanned U.S. military spaceship that looks like a small space shuttle lifted off Saturday on a secretive shakedown cruise — one that could include the deployment and retrieval of a clandestine payload.

The U.S. military sent the experimental vehicle, known as the Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, into space for a nine-month test flight. The Boeing-built miniature orbiter blasted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral. It is the second ship to be put in space under the military’s top secret X-37B program.

Richard McKinney, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, was a bit cagey in a post-launch statement. “Launch is a very demanding business and having what appears to be a successful launch is always good news,” he said. “It is important to remember that this is an experimental vehicle; that this is just the second launch; and that we have just started what is a very systematic checkout of the system,” he said.

Like OTV-1, which returned from a 224-day mission in December, all information on what OTV-2 will do in orbit, as well as any cargo or experiments that may be aboard, is classified. The new spacecraft are smaller versions of Nasa’s current shuttles such as Discovery, which are soon to be permanently retired. Unlike the existing orbiters the one-third scale shuttles are not designed to carry astronauts.

“We may extend the mission to enhance our understanding of the OTV capabilities,” Lt. Col. Troy Giese, X-37B program manager for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “Especially since the performance data from the first flight suggest that the vehicle could have gone beyond the 270-day requirement.”

Shaped like a shuttle, the orbiter is equipped with advanced heat-shield tiles as well as a state-of-the-art solar power system. The Air Force says the newest craft will serve as a test platform for satellite sensors and systems. Officials say the voyage will build upon what was learned during the first mission, though they won’t say what that was. The ultimate purpose of the X-37B and details about the craft largely remain a mystery.

Once fully operational, the shuttles could be used for a variety of missions including reconnaissance, in-space service and repair of satellites, deploying and retrieving spacecraft, and demonstrating new technologies, the US Air Force said. [via The Telegraph (UK) and Reuters]

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