US ready for another launch of secretive X-37B military space plane
The US was planning a new launch of its tiny, pilotless military space plane on Tuesday as part of a futuristic Air Force program that has fueled speculation over its mission.
The X-37B, which weighs five tons and is 8.9 meters long, can return material to Earth in the way of the retired shuttle Orbiter program but is designed to stay in orbit for much longer at 270 days.
According to reports by the US-based Space.com news website, the maiden voyage of the miniature space plane lasted a little over 224 days, orbiting Earth from April 22, 2010 to December 3 of that year, and finally landing on autopilot at a specially prepared runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The last X-37B returned in June after orbiting for 469 days in a test of endurance.
The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, approved the X-37B at Cape Canaveral in Florida after finding no danger following an anomaly during a separate launch two months ago.
The company said in a statement that a Global Positioning System satellite was put into orbit as expected on October 4 but that a fuel leak took place inside the thrust chamber, triggering an investigation.
Patrick Air Force Base gave notice of a hazard from a launch between 10:45 am to 5:15 pm on Tuesday.
Authorities have said little more about the X-37B. An Air Force fact sheet described it as "experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the US Air Force."
The secretive nature of the equipment on the X-37B has led to speculation in the media over its true nature, with some experts saying it could eventually be designed to tamper with satellites from rival nations.
China in 2007 became the first nation after the US and the former Soviet Union to shoot down one of its own satellites, in a test seen in Washington as a sign of the rising power's ambitions in space.
The X-37B project was launched by the space agency NASA in 1999. And the X-37B program is now run by the US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, Space.com said.
The Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office has a mission of expediting the development and fielding of select US Department of Defense combat support and weapon systems by leveraging defense-wide technology development efforts and existing operational capabilities, according to the news website.
Source: By Agencies - 15 December 2012
Photo: The U.S. Air Force’s Secret X-37B Space Plane Launches on Third Mission (Photo by NASA Tech)