Blastoff of the unmanned X-37B space plane from Kennedy Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Space Center was delayed until Thursday, April 22, to allow Discovery to return to earth at the nearby Kennedy Space Center. With many of its features kept secret, the project has sparked speculation that the little Orbital Test Vehicle is the space version of the US Predator drone.
The shuttle with its seven astronauts made a safe landing to earth Tuesday after a 14-day journey of more than 6.2 million miles in space.
The 4.9-ton spacecraft – which has a wingspan of 4.27 meters and is 8.84 meters long – tested the long-duration ability of reusable space vehicles to stay in space for up to 270 days at an altitude of 200-800 km from earth before making an automatic landing at the Vandenberg Air force Base in California.
The duration and exact nature of the Orbital Test Vehicle's mission were not been disclosed by the US Air Force Capabilities Office which oversees the project. Some space experts are calling its launch the onset of the "weaponization" or militarization" of space. Our military experts describe the X-37B as the first unmanned space craft able to carry out combat missions outside Earth.
The X-37B was launched Thursday by an Atlas-5 rocket.
Originally built by Boeing's Phantom Works Division as NASA X-37, the space agency closed it down when funding ran out and turned the space plane over to the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2006, the Air Force took over the prototype.