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Air Force prepping robot spacecraft for launch

On April 19, the Air Force is to launch a new robotic spacecraft called the X-37B that's designed to carry out military missions and land autonomously.

An early NASA rendering of the X-37. NASA/MSFC

The U.S. Air Force is preparing to launch a reusable robot spacecraft that will bring military capabilities into orbit, the result of a long development program that has seen few achievements so far.

Designed by NASA and Boeing, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle resembles a midget Space Shuttle or a Predator drone on steroids. Its purpose is classified, but the launch slated for April 19 is intended to demonstrate its ability to perform tasks in low Earth orbit before autonomously landing on a runway in California, according to an Associated Press report.

The X-37B spacecraft in an undated Air Force photo. Air Force

Weighing 11,000 pounds, the X-37B is about 30 feet long with a wingspan less than 15 feet. It will be launched from Cape Canaveral atop an Atlas V rocket and deploy solar panels to generate electricity in orbit, where it can remain for up to 270 days.

It can operate autonomously in orbit, as well as on re-entry and landing. Its weapons capabilities, if any, aren't clear. One defense analyst quoted by AP said the X-37B is seen as a vehicle that can carry payloads into orbit in its cargo bay, perform military missions, and return to Earth, though further development of the prototype is uncertain.

Development of the craft has been under the direction of a variety of bureaucracies, including NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), consuming hundreds of millions of dollars. Observers will be watching to see whether the April 19 launch will reveal more secrets about this mysterious robot plane.