The US Air Force successfully launched its pocket-size X-37B robot space plane into orbit last night, on a mission whose nature and duration remain classified. With the imminent departure of the Space Shuttle, the little wingship will soon be the only orbital craft capable of runway landing - and perhaps other things.
The X-37B took off inside a payload fairing on top of an Atlas V launcher from Space Launch Complex 41, part of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station rather than NASA's co-located Kennedy Space Centre, at 01:52am UK time this morning. United Launch Alliance, providing the launcher, said the takeoff was successful, Register informs.
Gary Payton, Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, said the point of the project is to test a next-generation space shuttle to try to trim time between flights and cut costs.
"Probably the most important demonstration is on the ground, see what it really takes to turn this bird around and get it ready to go fly again," said Colonel Payton, a former astronaut who has flown in the space shuttle.
The X-37B is not meant to carry people. The military is looking at the vehicle as a way to test new equipment, sensors and materials in space, with an eye to incorporating them into satellites and other operational systems, ABC Online reports.
US and Chinese experts believe that the Sukhoi Checkmate aircraft will become competition to their F-35 and FC-31 fighter jets in the arms market.