SpaceX launches secret USA military space plane ahead of Irma

SpaceX launches secret USA military space plane ahead of Irma

SpaceX launches secret USA military space plane ahead of Irma

SpaceX is racing Hurricane Irma this morning to get its Falcon 9 rocket off the pad at Cape Canaveral and launch the Air Force's X-37B-an autonomous spaceplane that orbits for hundreds of days at a time on classified missions-up into orbit. What exactly the unmanned ship, referred to as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, has been tasked to accomplish is unclear. Given the top-secret nature of the X-37B's [spying] mission, there's little that we know about its orbit or what it could possibly be carrying aboard.

The Air Force says OTV-5 will travel in a higher-inclination orbit than previous missions, to expand the operational envelope for the X-37B.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson disclosed during an early June congressional hearing that SpaceX, not ULA, would be launching X-37B this time around. The new heat pipe technology is lighter and less expensive than components used on most satellites to keep internal avionics temperatures within safe margins. A deployable solar panel generates electricity for the mini-shuttle, and it does not rely on hydraulics for its aerosurfaces, unlike NASA's space shuttles, which were limited to missions lasting several weeks.

USAF officials said they want to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B programme to launch quickly if warranted.

Here is a listing of the X-37B's flight history compiled by Spaceflight Now's Justin Ray.

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"The Falcon has safely landed", a SpaceX launch controller announced. The first one launched in 2010.

The Air Force has also not confirmed which of the two X-37B vehicles was launched Thursday. Its fate aboard the Falcon 9 second stage will likely remain unknown until amateur observers begin to catalog and track the vehicle as it orbits the Earth.

But this week's rocket launch is not what an ordinary SpaceX launch looks like.

There were concerns SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, would be forced to postpone the launch as Hurricane Irma threatens to batter Florida.

SpaceX plans to reuse one of those recovered rockets for a commercial satellite launch no sooner than October.

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