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Published: Sun, September 10, 2017
Research | By Jennifer Evans

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

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

The Air Force sent a secret space plane into orbit from Florida on Thursday just ahead of Hurricane Irma's expected arrival this weekend.

This marks the X-37B's fifth journey into orbit and this time the craft will be carrying several small satellites in addition to testing out experimental technologies, including the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, a new vibrating heat pipe, reports The Verge. The booster's return to SpaceX's landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was broadcast live.

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.

SpaceX has conducted their 13th successful launch of 2017 after sending Boeing's X-37B spaceplane into orbit.

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. Details about the spacecraft's mission are under lock and key, but we know it previously returned to Earth in May following a two-year trip in orbit.

Exactly what the X-37B did during those four missions, or what it will do during the newly launched OTV-5, is a mystery; most X-37B payloads and activities are classified.

The Falcon 9 lifted off cleanly at 1000 local time (1300 GMT), and the first stage separated a couple of minutes later. It has also said that the X-37B Orbital has a wingspan of 14 feet, 11 inches, is almost 30 feet long, and weighs 11,000 pounds.

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

At least one more X-37B flight, OTV-6, is on the books for liftoff on an Atlas 5 rocket in 2019 on the so-called Air Force Space Command-7 launch.

It will now need to be moved from its base as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida in time for Saturday morning. SpaceX has not announced if Koreasat 5A will blast off from pad 39A or pad 40, the company's other East Coast launch complex at Cape Canaveral still under repairs after a rocket explosion previous year damaged the facility.

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