CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.
The military’s small, top-secret version of the space shuttle rocketed into orbit Tuesday for a repeat mystery mission, two years after making the first flight of its kind.
The Air Force launched the unmanned spacecraft Tuesday hidden on top of an Atlas V rocket. As if on cue, clouds quickly swallowed up the rocket as it disappeared out over the ocean.
It is the second flight for this original X-37B spaceplane. The craft circled the planet for seven months in 2010. A second X-37B spacecraft spent more than a year in orbit.
These high-tech mystery machines — 29 feet long — are about one-quarter the size of NASA’s old space shuttles and can land automatically on a runway. The two previous touchdowns occurred in Southern California; this one might end on NASA’s 3-mile-long runway once reserved for the space agency’s shuttles.
The military isn’t saying much if anything about this new secret mission known as OTV-3, or Orbital Test Vehicle, flight No. 3. In fact, launch commentary ended 17 minutes into the flight, and a news blackout followed.