NASA may be giving up on space-planes, with only 3 space shuttle missions left to go, but the U.S. Air Force hasn’t. They have launched the secret, X-37B space-plane last night from Cape Canaveral. The unmanned drone was lifted into orbit on top of the venerable Atlas V rocket, often used for launching satellites. Very little is known about the X-37B, other than it is 29 feet long and designed to serve as a “flexible space test platform”.

Based on lifting body technology from the old Dyna-Soar program from the 1960s, the X-37B will allow the U.S. Air Force to conduct a wide range of experiments to test devices and systems in Earth orbit. Equipped with a solar array inside a shuttle-like cargo-bay, the X-37B is said to be capable of spending up to 9 months in orbit. In addition to being an orbital laboratory, the space-plane can also be used spy missions and probably for deploying weapons as well.

Completely automated, the X-37B is launched inside a protective shroud with the Atlas-V rocket, carry out it’s orbital mission, then land like a glider, similarly to the space shuttles. Built by Boeing, the new space-drone is said to have a new generation of protective tiles. These composite-ceramic tiles can withstand the extreme temperatures of re-entry, often exceeding 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The U.S. Air Force is building a second X-37B set to fly next year. Meanwhile, they hope to test this first vehicle often, projecting a turn-around-time of only 15 days between flights.