Washington AFP-JIJI

The United States was planning a new launch of its tiny, pilotless military space plane for Tuesday as part of a futuristic air force program that has fueled speculation over its mission.

The X-37B, which weighs 5 tons and is 8.9 meters long, can return material to Earth in the way of the retired shuttle orbiter program but is designed to stay in orbit for much longer at 270 days.

The last X-37B returned in June after orbiting for 469 days in a test of endurance.

The United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, approved the X-37B at Cape Canaveral in Florida after finding no danger following an anomaly during a separate launch two months ago.

The company said in a statement that a Global Positioning System satellite was put into orbit as expected on Oct. 4 but that a fuel leak took place inside the thrust chamber, triggering an investigation.

Patrick Air Force Base gave notice that the launch was scheduled to take place between 10:45 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. Tuesday.

Authorities have said little more about the X-37B. An air force fact sheet described it as “experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force.”

The secretive nature of the equipment on the X-37B has led to media speculation over its true nature, with some experts saying it could eventually be designed to tamper with rival nations’ satellites.

In 2007, China became the first nation after the United States and the former Soviet Union to shoot down one of its own satellites — a test seen in Washington as a sign of the rising power’s space ambitions.

The X-37B project was launched by NASA in 1999 before being adopted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which designs new technology for the U.S. military.

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