SpaceX launches Air Force's super-secret mini-shuttle

Muriel Hammond
September 8, 2017

SpaceX successfully launched a secret US Air Force space plane on Thursday ahead of the arrival in Florida of Hurricane Irma.

"Hurricane Irma is forecast to be approximately 950 miles southeast of the Spaceport during Thursday's launch attempt, so while Irma certainly bears watching, it will not be a factor in Thursday's weather", forecasters said in a Tuesday update, noting that thick and cumulus clouds were the primary concerns.

An unmanned Falcon rocket blasted off Thursday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center.

This marks the first time that SpaceX was granted the opportunity to use its Falcon 9 to launch the X-37B, and it shows that the has confidence in the rocket's reliability rating.

That launch, which will employ ULA's most-powerful variant of its Atlas 5 rocket, would have required SpaceX to have used its Falcon Heavy, which is still months from its debut.

It is the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini-shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. Last time it flew, the space plane was in orbit for almost two years, breaking the record for a reusable spacecraft in space.

The X-37B, which looks somewhat like a miniature version of the retired Space Shuttle, has a wingspan of just under 15 feet and weighs around 11,000 pounds. Its first space flight was in 2010.

SpaceX stopped providing details about the X-37B's climb to orbit a few minutes after lift-off at the air force's request.

The secretive program is based in two former space shuttle hangars near the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC, allowing both spacecraft to land at the nearby Shuttle Landing Facility. Boeing houses and prepares the X-37B spaceplanes for launch inside former space shuttle hangars near the space center's huge Vehicle Assembly Building. Over all four previous missions, the space craft have spent a total of 2,085 days in space.

A commercial South Korean television broadcast satellite named Koreasat 5A is third in line on SpaceX's launch manifest, with liftoff from Florida scheduled for mid-October.

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