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Second Top Secret ‘Mini-Shuttle’ Flight Launches

March 7, 2011

An experimental military space orbiter, known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), lifted off aboard an unmanned Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Saturday in a demonstration run that could last as long as nine months. It is the second such craft to be put in orbit under the US military’s X-37B program, Reuters is reporting.

The Boeing-built X-37B looks like a smaller version of NASA’s space shuttle orbiters — 29 feet long, 14 feet across. The one-third scale shuttles are solar powered, unlike the space shuttles, and are designed exclusively for robotic missions. What those missions might be are still classified.

The first launch of the experimental program, OTV-1, returned from a 224-day mission in early December. Once operational, the X-37B could be used for a variety of missions including reconnaissance, in-space service and repair of satellites, deploying and retrieving spacecraft, and demonstrating new technologies, the Air Force said.

OTV-1 returned from flight in good condition, giving the green-light for its sister ship with few modifications. A more detailed inspection and analysis of OTV-1 will be part of its refurbishment and although not yet been scheduled for a second launch, the Air Force anticipates it will return to orbit.

Only minor tweaks are anticipated for its return to orbit. The vehicle’s main landing gear tire pressure will be reduced by about 15 percent to help avoid repeating the blown tire that OTV-1 experienced upon touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 3.

Image Caption: In a testing procedure, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle taxis on the flightline in June 2009 at Vandenberg AFB, Calif.

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