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Air Force sends mystery mini-shuttle back to space

  • 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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

    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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

  • This April 5, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. Half of the Atlas V five-meter fairing is in the background. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)

    This April 5, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. Half of the Atlas V five-meter fairing is in the background. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)

  • This March 30, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)

    This March 30, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)

  • 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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

    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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

  • 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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

    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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

  • 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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)
  • This April 5, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. Half of the Atlas V five-meter fairing is in the background. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)
  • This March 30, 2010 photo made available by the U.S. Air Force via NASA shows the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle during testing at the Astrotech facility in Titusville, Fla. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012, the Air Force launched the top-secret, unmanned mini-space shuttle from Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/U.S. Air Force via NASA)
  • 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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)
  • 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, Dec. 11, 2012, 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.(AP Photo/John Raoux)

The military’s small, top-secret version of the space shuttle rocketed into orbit yesterday for a repeat mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.

The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft yesterday hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket.

It’s the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. It circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.

These high-tech mystery machines – 29 feet long – are about one-quarter the size of NASA’s old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway. The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA’s three-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency’s shuttles.

The military isn’t saying much, if anything, about this new secret mission. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight.

But one scientific observer, Harvard University’s Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the spaceplane is carrying sensors designed for spying and likely is serving as a testbed for future satellites.

While acknowledging he does not know what the spaceplane is carrying, McDowell said on-board sensors could be capable of imaging or intercepting transmissions of electronic emissions from terrorist training sites in Afghanistan or other hot spots.

The beauty of a reusable spaceplane is that it can be launched on short notice based on need, McDowell said.

What’s important about this flight is that it is the first reflight.

“That is pretty cool,” McDowell said, “reusing your spacecraft after a runway landing. That’s something that has only really been done with the shuttle.”

The two previous secret flights were in 200-plus-mile-high orbits, circling at roughly 40-degree angles to the equator. That means the craft flew over the swatch between 40 degrees or so north latitude and 40 degrees or so south latitude.

That puts Russia’s far north out of the spaceplane’s observing realm, McDowell noted. “It might be studying Middle Eastern latitudes or it might just be being used for sensor tests over the United States,” he said.

McDowell speculates that this newest flight will follow suit.

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