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Monday, May 18, 2020 1:00 am

Mystery space plane makes its 6th launch

Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The U.S. military's mystery space plane rocketed into orbit again Sunday, this time with an extra load of science experiments.

It's the sixth flight of an X-37B, a solar-powered plane that's flown by remote control without a crew.

Officials aren't saying how long the spacecraft will remain in orbit this time or the purpose of the mission. But a senior vice president for X-37B developer Boeing, Jim Chilton, noted each mission has been progressively longer.

The previous mission lasted a record two years, with a touchdown shrouded in darkness at NASA's Kennedy Space Center last year.

The winged spacecraft resembles NASA's old shuttles but is just one-quarter the size at 29 feet long. The one just launched features an extra compartment for experiments, including several for NASA and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, making it the biggest science load yet for an X-37B.

The Air Force has two of these reusable space planes. Their home base is a former space shuttle hangar at Kennedy.

“You could say that the X-37B stands on the shoulders of the space shuttle,” Chilton said. “From a common shape to a common home.”

Since the first flight in 2010, the secretive space planes had logged a combined 2,865 days in orbit as of Sunday.

“If you add up all the missions, just under eight years in orbit and 1 billion miles, so a lot of traveling by this machine,” Chilton said during the launch broadcast.

Delayed a day by bad weather, this marked just the second rocket launch for the newly established Space Force. In March, it hoisted a national security satellite.

United Launch Alliance, which provided the Atlas V rocket, declared success 90 minutes after liftoff.

It dedicated Sunday's launch to the health care workers and others who are working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company said it followed health advice. Many of the flight controllers wore masks and were spread out.

Spectators parked to watch the Atlas soar.


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