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Tactical-Life was there to witness the U.S. Air Force launch its unmanned reusable X-37B spaceplane into orbit aboard an Atlas 5 rocket last Thursday on a round-trip shakedown mission. The unmanned shuttle is being run by the Air Force’s 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado.

The X-37B is an updated version of the soon-to-be-retired fleet of Orbiters. The prototype Orbital Test Vehicle is about one-quarter the size of a space shuttle orbiter and is designed to support an entire suite of military missions for the Air Force. The 29-foot-long, 11,000-pound X-37B spacecraft is built by Boeing Phantom Works and has a modest cargo bay, a powerful maneuvering engine, a deployable solar array, and stubby wings to guide the ship back to Earth.

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The liftoff was perfect, with the 17-foot diameter nose cone being jettisoned from the Atlas 5 rocket almost four minutes into the flight, uncovering the miniature space shuttle. About a half-minute later, the Atlas first stage pulled away from the Centaur upper stage and the hydrogen-fueled RL10 engine ignited for about 13 minutes, pushing the X-37B in orbit 20 minutes after liftoff.

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The spaceplane is designed to operate and perform significant maneuvers at altitudes between 126 to 575 statute miles. At the end of the flight that could last up to 270 days, the craft’s main engine will fire to drop the ship from orbit. The spaceplane will re-enter the atmosphere on a computer-controlled autopilot and make a computer controlled high-speed landing at close to 300 mph at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

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Click for larger image. Tactical-Life was there to witness the U.S. Air Force launch…