SpaceX sneaks in X-37B spy plane launch ahead of Hurricane Irma

Delia Watkins
September 8, 2017

SpaceX is well-known for taking risks but launching a classified U.S. military satellite into orbit with a 50 percent chance of success and a category five hurricane bearing down on the launch pad is a whole new frontier. The goal was to get the launch up before the arrival of Hurricane Irma, and they succeeded.

After soaring through puffy cumulus clouds and pitching on a course northeast from the Florida spaceport on 1.7 million pounds of thrust, the Falcon 9's first stage engines turned off and the booster fell away from the rocket's second stage around two-and-a-half minutes into the flight.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage stands atop Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida after launching the US military's X-37B space plane on its fifth classified mission for the Air Force.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno disputes that ULA was even afforded the opportunity to participate in the bidding process, however.

For SpaceX, this marks the 16th recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage.

But what exactly the X-37B does in orbit is classified - aside from launch and landing dates and minor operational details, the Air Force provides little on the vehicle's goal. Its last mission lasted 718 days, or nearly two years.

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In a sign of how long the X-37B can stay aloft, the third mission lasted 674 days while the fourth, which concluded in May, spent 718 days in orbit. Other than that, we don't know what the X-37B will be up to, or for how long. The successful launch this morning thankfully means that SpaceX and CCAFS can now focus on safely readying their facilities for a potentially catastrophic storm, and most importantly on evacuating themselves and their families. The Air Force usually says it's running experiments to test new satellite technology.

Previously, Lockheed Martin's Atlas rockets brought the Boeing vehicle into space.

The rest of the flight plan remains secret, along with the mission's planned duration.

We do know that the experimental program is created to help work out the kinks in reusable spacecraft, and there are two X-37B vehicles, built by Boeing.

Like the space shuttle, the X-37B launches vertically and comes to back to Earth horizontally, in a runway landing. 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.

Today's launch is going to be the last for a while from the Kennedy Space Center.

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