WASHINGTON, December 12 (RIA Novosti) - The United States Air Force successfully launched an unmanned Atlas V rocket Tuesday from Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying a small robotic military space shuttle, kicking off a month long classified operation.
"The focus of the program remains on testing vehicle capabilities and proving the utility and cost-effectiveness of a reusable spacecraft," Air Force spokeswoman Tracy Bunko wrote in an email to Reuters in an apparent attempt to debunk the speculation.
Closely resembling a miniature space shuttle, the top-secret X-37B space vehicle soared into the atmosphere just after 1 p.m. EST (6 p.m. GMT).
About 15 minutes into the launch, mission control reported the rocket was flying at 13,000 mph (20,921 kph) and performing perfectly according to media reports.
Two minutes later, launch commentary ended according to the Associated Press, and a news blackout followed, adding yet another layer of mystery to the secret mission.
Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, speculates the mini-shuttle is carrying sensors for spying and likely serving as a testbed for future satellites, according to the Associated Press.
This is the second flight for the original X-37B space vehicle. It circled the Earth for seven months in 2010. Another X-37B spent more than a year in orbit.
The Air Force would not comment on how long this mission will last.