WASHINGTON, April 22 (Xinhua) -- The U.S. Air Force Thursday launched a "space plane," an unmanned spacecraft designed to fly in low orbit for as long as nine months.
The plane, code-named X-37B, blasted off with a rocket Thursday night from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Its mission will be controlled by Air Force Space Command.
The spacecraft's mission remains classified. It will carry out undisclosed tests and release payload into space. It is slated to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The project began in 1999 under NASA, but was later transferred to the Pentagon. Air Force deputy undersecretary Gary Payton said its original purpose was to test the next-generation space shuttle. The military is looking at its potentials to test new equipment, sensors and materials in space.
The X-36B is built by Boeing, and it looks like a space shuttle, albeit much smaller. It is about 9 meters long, and has a 4.5 meter wing span. The spacecraft has a cargo bay, just like the space shuttle. If the flight is successful, another launch is planned for 2011.
The program's secretive nature has media outlets guessing, some have voiced concerns about it's potential to weaponize space. But the Air Force rejects the notion.