Secret military space plane to launch from Cape Canaveral

Plane will launch Tuesday afternoon, officials say

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A secret military space plane will attempt to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Tuesday afternoon, according to published reports.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle is scheduled to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket between 1:03 p.m. and 6:03 p.m.

The launch comes about two months after ULA's launch of a GPS satellite from the Cape on a Delta IV rocket, a mission that experienced a loss of thrust in the rocket's upper stage engine, which is similar to the one used by the Atlas V.

There's been no announcement yet about the suspected cause of that anomaly, but officials are apparently satisfied it won't reoccur on the Atlas V.

Next week's launch would be the third by an unmanned OTV, which resembles a small space shuttle measuring 29 feet long and 15 feet wide.

Air Force officials say the spacecraft (it has two) are being used to test advanced guidance, navigation and control systems as well as advanced thermal protection systems, high-temperature structures and seals, and lightweight electromechanical flight systems. The vehicles also are a rapid-turnaround technology demonstrator.

Officials have also said that the spacecraft launching next week could land on Kennedy Space Center's former shuttle runway for the first time, after the previous two missions touched down in California. The Air Force is considering consolidating its OTV processing, launch and landing operations in Florida.