The U.S. military’s mysterious mini-shuttle is off on another top-secret sojourn today after launching Tuesday aboard a powerful Atlas V rocket.
Mounted nose-up on the 19-story United Launch Alliance rocket, the unmanned X-37B spacecraft blasted off as scheduled at 1:03 p.m. from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
The exact nature of the ongoing X-37B mission is classified. A public information blackout was put in place 17 minutes and 34 seconds after launch.
Officials with the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which operates a two-ship X-37B fleet, say the spacecraft are technology demonstrators. But others have speculated the mini-shuttles could be anything from satellite killers to a testbed for satellite sensors or even a space bomber.
Brian Weeden, technical adviser to Secure World Foundation, which promotes peaceful uses of outer space, said the primary mission might be to test advanced radar, hyperspectral or infrared sensors.
“Now it is possible that the X-37B could be using whatever sensors it carries to try to collect intelligence on other satellites,” said Weeden, a former Air Force officer with experience in space and ballistic missile operations.
“But it could be that the X-37B is testing out new sensors, or more advanced sensors than just visible, optical sensors,” he said.
The public information blackout probably will remain in place until the spacecraft is ready for an autonomous atmospheric re-entry and landing. The landing date is now classified, and likely TBD.
The first two X-37B flights culminated at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. But Air Force officials say the ongoing mission might conclude with a landing on the three-mile shuttle runway at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
The Air Force also is thinking about consolidating X-37B launch, landing and turn-around operations on Florida’s Space Coast.
Still no official word on that, but two former shuttle hangars are available for spacecraft processing operations.
The hangars would be more than adequate for the 29-foot-long, solar-powered mini-shuttles, which are equipped with two wings, two tailfins and a payload bay the size of a pick-up truck bed.
The launch Tuesday was the 10th and last this year for United Launch Alliance, a joint venture partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin that merges the Atlas V and Delta IV rocket families.
Eight of those launches took place at Cape Canaveral; two at Vandenberg.
Next up for ULA: the planned Jan. 29 launch of an Atlas V rocket with a NASA Tracking and Data Relay System (TDRS) satellite.
The spacecraft enable ground controllers to maintain near constant contact with crews aboard the International Space Station.
FLASHBACK 06/17/2012: X-37B Mini-Shuttle Returns to Earth