Air Force's Mysterious Space Plane Launches

That's the Air Force's super-secret unmanned X-37B space plane hitching a ride on an Atlas V rocket yesterday. No one knows what its mission is. Or even when it's coming back.

The rumors about the X-37B have been building for a few years now, ever since the project came under the auspices of the Department of Defense—and became classified—in 2004. Is it for intelligence gathering? Will it be weaponized? Or is it nothing more than orbital delivery truck? From the Air Force's official description of the program:

"A flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment. This service directly supports the Defense Department's technology risk-reduction efforts for new satellite systems. By providing an ‘on-orbit laboratory' test environment, it will prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs."

Which is not entirely helpful.

The X37B, co-developed by Boeing, is just 29 feet long and can stay in orbit for up to nine months, so it could be some time before we see it again. For now, the main objective seems to be if the Air Force can successfully retrieve it in good enough condition to re-use. And, you know, to test out the antimatter ray. [Wired]