A top secret space plane developed by the US military has blasted off from Cape Canaveral on its maiden voyage. Billed as a small shuttle, the unmanned X-37B heralds the next generation of space exploration. It will be the first craft to carry out an autonomous re-entry in the history of the US programme. But its mission - and its cost - remain shrouded in secrecy. The Air Force said the launch was a success but would give no further details.
However, experts have said the spacecraft was intended to speed up development of combat-support systems and weapons systems.
There have already been accusations that the programme could lead to the 'weaponisation' of space.
Speaking after the launch, Air Force deputy under-secretary for space systems Gary Payton, admitted it was impossible to hide a space launch but was cagey about the what exactly the X-37B would do.
'On this flight the main thing we want to emphasise is the vehicle itself, not really, what's going on in the on-orbit phase because the vehicle itself is the piece of news here,' he said.
He refuted claims that the craft was a step towards military dominance in space.
'I don't know how this could be called weaponisation of space,' he said. 'It's just an updated version of the Space Shuttle type of activities in space.
'We, the Air Force, have a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.'
The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle took a decade to develop and will spend up to nine months in orbit. It will re-enter Earth on autopilot and land, just like an ordinary plane, at the Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.
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New York Times