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Shuttle X-37B Launched into Space on Secret Mission

Dec 12, 2012 06:28 AM EST

The U.S. Air Force successfully launched a secret mini-shuttle into space from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The unmanned space shuttle X-37B, aboard the Atlas V craft rocket, blasted off on Tuesday around 1.00 p.m. local time, to begin its secretive mission in the Earth's orbit.

There are no confirmed details about the mission, but it has been speculated that the spacecraft is carrying either satellite sensors for spying or a space bomber.

Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer who is currently serving as a technical adviser to Secure World Foundation, said that the main mission of the space shuttle might be to test advanced radar, hyperspectral or infrared sensors, according to reports in Florida Today.

"Now it is possible that the X-37B could be using whatever sensors it carries to try to collect intelligence on other satellites," Weeden, who has experience in space and ballistic missile operations, told Florida Today.

"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 mini shuttle X-37B, also known as OTV-3 (Orbital Test Vehicle, flight No 3), has been built by aerospace company Boeing. The shuttle is just 8.8 meters long and its size is about one-fourth of NASA's space shuttles.

This is the third flight of a military space plane to be sent into the Earth's orbit. The first, X-37B, was launched in 2010 and the shuttle spent 224 days in the orbit. The second flight stayed in space for 469 days after it was launched in 2011. Both the spacecraft landed on a 15,000-foot airstrip at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, reports The Seattle Times.

It is not known how long the third mission will last. Officials said that this time the flight might land at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

The space plane is designed in such a way that it can land automatically on a runway.

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