Boeing X-37B autonomous space shuttle launched last night, due back 'whenevs'

Boeing's X-37B, the test craft that's been kicking around for the last decade or so, has finally made it into orbit. Formerly a NASA project, we've heard little about the thing since it passed into DARPA hands in 2004 -- and statements like those of the Air Force's Gary Payton don't help much: "in all honesty, we don't know when it's coming back for sure." How's that for autonomous? Also uncommented upon, yet tantalizing, are the military's intentions for the unmanned vehicle, which can remain in orbit 270 days at a time. Spy drone? Orbital weapons platform? Plaything for our future robot overlords? (Let's hope it's not the last one.) The success of the mission will depend on a couple things, namely: how the return trip goes (it should make it back to California's Vandenberg Air Force Base via autopilot... sometime) and whether the thing can be re-launched quickly enough. Ideally, the craft should be ready for another flight in fifteen days. Another test is planned for 2011.

[Thanks, One Love!]