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The Air Force's Second Secret Space Plane Returns From More Than A Year in Orbit

80beatsBy Veronique GreenwoodJune 19, 2012 9:38 PM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news It's been a month of reminders that actually, yes, the US government has a lot of giant, high-tech toys that it's not telling us about. Two weeks ago, it was, "Wait, we have a secret Hubble-sized space telescope? Wait, we have TWO of them?" This week (especially if you missed the first one's flight in 2010), it's, "Wait, we have a secret space plane? Wait...TWO of them?!" Yes indeed, and the unmanned space plane that's in the news this week has just returned from a record-breaking 469 days in orbit (the first vehicle, dubbed Orbital Test Vehicle 1, was up for 225 days). These planes, which are made by the Boeing Phantom Works, belong to the Air Force, which says that they are just practicing launching and landing the vehicles. But that can't be all: presumably there's some reason why the things have to stay aloft for a year's time. And the 29-foot planes, which are mini versions of NASA's Space Shuttle, have cargo bins the size of pickups. The Air Force, though, has not been forthcoming about what they might, either now or in the future, carry inside. One has to wonder: what else is hanging out in Earth's orbit? We hope that whatever is out there means that we're (at least technologically) closer to regular space travel than we think we are. Air Force folks, if you're listening: it would be nice if the next super-secret space surprise was a hundred-year starship.

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