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Secret U.S. military space plane launch scrubbed

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The X-37 platform was intended to replace the space shuttle.

Commercial space ventures are getting most of the buzz, but the U.S. government is still operating strategic spacecraft. The Air Force's secret X-37B unmanned space plane is scheduled for liftoff next month on a classified mission to Earth's orbit after its launch this week was scrubbed due to a mechanical failure.

The flight has been postponed from its Thursday launch until mid-November, according to reports. The delay is being blamed on engine troubles, and was announced on Saturday by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that provides launch services to the Air Force using Atlas V rockets.

NASA originated the X-37 project with Boeing in 1999 to replace the shuttle program, but it was transferred to the U.S. Department of Defense in 2004 for clandestine duty. Boeing's Phantom Works, the group behind the Joint Strike Fighter as well as number of advanced drone and aircraft concepts, designed the X-37 platform.

The X-37B operates under a similar concept as the space shuttle. It's a reusable space vehicle that is piloted back to the U.S. (over the wire) after completing its missions. The X-37 could eventually use the same facilities as the shuttle at Kennedy Space Center. The November launch will be the plane's first trip back into space since a 15 month orbital test mission that ran from 2010 to 2011.

Boeing is working under a U.S. $301-million government contract, and contributed a portion of the X-37's development costs from 1999-2002. There are currently two craft in operation, and a larger version that has a pressured capsule for astronauts is presently being built to increase payload capacity and mission flexibility.

The U.S. Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office is overseeing its missions. That office "expedites development and fielding of select Department of Defense combat support and weapon systems by leveraging defense-wide technology development efforts and existing operational capabilities," according to its Web site.

Here's a video of the plane's unclassified details:

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— By on October 23, 2012, 2:00 AM PST

David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure