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US Air Force launches secretive space plane

world Updated: Mar 06, 2011 08:08 IST

IANS
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A secretive unmanned US Air Force "space plane" was launched on Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle blasted off aboard an Atlas V rocket at 5.48pm.

An earlier test flight by another X-37B lasted seven months, on a mission that the Air Force hoped would prove the viability of reusable drone access to space.

The Air Force said the second test flight would allow them to fine-tune the vehicle and try to replicate the initial results.

The secretive nature of the project has led to speculation about its role in the military - some say it can be used to spy on communications or to deploy small satellites. Some have expressed concerns it could mark the beginning of the weaponisation of space, a notion the Air Force flatly rejects.

The spacecraft has a wingspan of 4.5 metres, is 8.9 metres long and weighs 4,990 kg.

The vehicle is designed to remain in low orbit for up to 270 days. Built by Boeing's secretive Phantom Works division, the plane is powered by batteries and solar cells.

The X-37 programme began in 1999 under NASA's guidance before being transferred in 2004 to the Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), before winding up in the hands of the Air Force.