An Atlas rocket placed a winged spacecraft into orbit for the Air Force tonight which will test new technologies and could pave the way for a smaller military space shuttle.
The delta winged X37-B space plane is a test vehicle and will orbit earth for an unknown time -- likely several days to several weeks.
"If these technologies on the vehicle prove to be as good as we estimate, it will make our access to space more responsive, perhaps cheaper, and push us in the vector toward being able to react to war fighter needs more quickly," stated Mr. Gary Payton, Air Force Deputy Under Secretary for Space Programs.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas 5-501 with the Orbital Test Vehicle lifted-off from Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this evening at 7:52:01 pm EDT (23:52 GMT).
The on time launch sent the white and bronze rocket into a beautiful sunsetting sky.
The single engine booster carried the 11,000 pound space plane up and out over the Atlantic Ocean. Following a several minute burn, the stage was cut loose and it's Centaur upper stage rocket began burning to carry the craft higher.
The final data point this reporter received from telemetry was at 8:08 pm, when the X37-B was 231 miles altitude and 245 miles down range from the Cape. It was then several hundred miles from orbital velocity (17,250 mph).
Twenty minutes after launch, the Air Force's new toy in space went into a protective news blackout for the remainder of the mission.
"As the first U.S. unmanned reentering space vehicle, the first of its kind, it has been remarkably easy to work with," stated Lt. Col. Erik Bowman of the 45th Launch Support Squadron. "Processing and preparations went extremely smooth, and there were absolutely no delays in the vehicle processing."
Over the course of several days to several weeks, the X37-B space plane will under go several tests as it flies unmanned some 350 miles or higher in earth orbit.
According to an Air Force statement following launch, "The X-37B will conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment where it will need to function. A number of new technologies will also be tested on the OTV itself."
Once the Air Force sends commands to send the reusable space plane home, it will reenter just like the space shuttle with a nose pitched up and wings level.
It will glide home under no human control, and will aim for a touchdown on runway 12 at Vandenberg, AFB in California.
The Air Force stated to this reported recently that the ground will be helpless as the X37-B drops towards California. There is no one guiding it home from a command center as landing occurs.
An exact landing date or time may not be known until minutes before the actual touchdown occurs.