Air Force launches top-secret mini-space shuttle

5:51 PM, Dec 11, 2012   |    comments
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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (USATODAY) -- An Atlas V rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Tuesday, hauling a unmanned military mini-shuttle on a top-secret mission.

Cloud coverage in the area threatened to scrub the launch all day, but the weather cleared just enough for an on-time launch at 1:03 p.m. EST at Launch Complex 41.

The Atlas rocket and its Centaur upper stage performed flawlessly through the first 17 minutes and 34 seconds. The mission then switched into a classified mode, and an information blackout followed.

That's Standard Operating Procedure for classified military missions launched from Cape Canaveral.

The launch of the X-37B was the first re-flight of one of the experimental spaceplanes. The vehicle aboard the Atlas V was launched in April 2010 on a 224-day technology demonstration mission, the exact nature of which remains classified.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, carrying an X-37B experimental robotic space plane, lifts off from launch complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Tuesday in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Air Force officials said the unmanned space plane, which resembles a miniature space shuttle, provides a way to test technologies in space.(Photo: John Raoux AP)

A second X-37B spacecraft launched in March 2011 and flew a 469-day mission.

The X-37B is capable of autonomous atmospheric re-entry and landing, and the first two missions concluded on a runway at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Air Force officials say there is a chance the third mission will culminate with a landing on the shuttle runway at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

The service also is considering consolidating X-37B launch, landing and turn-around operations on Florida's Space Coast.

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