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Clandestine US 'space warplane' extends orbital mission

Black budget robot carries on its unknown task

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The second of the US Air Force's mysteriously-missioned X-37B spaceplanes is going to continue its clandestine operations in orbit past its intended nine months.

Detail on the X-37B's wings. Credit: USAF

X-37B. Credit: USAF

The spaceship, dubbed a 'secret space warplane' by the Iranians, has been in orbit since March 5, although the mission and its cargo are on a need-to-know basis.

"On-orbit experimentation is continuing," Air Force Major Tracy Bunko, a spokesperson for the secretary of the Air Force, told Spaceflight Now. "Though we cannot predict when that will be complete, we are learning new things about the vehicle every day, which makes the mission a very dynamic process."

The X-37B is a black-budget-funded, unmanned mini-shuttle whose exact purposes are unknown.

US officials in charge of the winged, reusable craft say its a good way of getting new techs into space quickly because you don't need to build a satellite to take them. They add that because the planes are reusable, they can test new gadgets and if they don't work, you're not writing off a billion- or million-dollar satellite.

However, despite their attempts to make the little ships seem benign, as soon as you slap the word 'secret' onto a space project, you inevitably get tons of speculation on the real purpose of it, some of which is fuelled by the Reg here.

The second of the X-37B missions was only designed to last 270 days, but engineers have now decided to extend that.

"This will provide us with additional experimentation opportunities and allow us to extract the maximum value out of the mission," Bunko said. ®

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