USAF X-37B "Space Plane" Goes Public For Launch

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The United States Air Force's X-37B unmanned space plane has been billed as being a generation beyond the Space Shuttle and, though it was set for launch, Thursday, details of its purpose remain sparse. Intended to be a reusable unmanned payload-capable spacecraft, the Cape Canaveral launch, from atop an Atlas V rocket stack, will help determine the vehicle's real-world economics when it comes to turnaround time and cost. The rest of the vehicle's mission -- what it will be doing while it's in low orbit -- remains less clear. The military's Rapid Capabilities Office says the first mission will consist of checkout and performance characteristics of the spacecraft's systems. The vehicle measures about 29 feet long with a wingspan of more than 14 feet and a weight of almost 11,000 pounds. It has the capacity to hold one or two small satellites and is equipped to fly itself back to earth and land on a runway, unmanned.

Duration of the flight is unknown and it will return to either Edwards or Vandenberg when it's finished with tests. The X-37B is designed to conduct missions that are up to 270 days long. The project has been shuffled between agencies for about a decade. It began in 1999 with NASA as a new technologies testbed, but switched to DARPA in 2004 and finally shifted to the Air Force in 2006. Its timeline once included a 2008 date for first launch, more recently modified to 7:51 p.m., Thursday.