SpaceX launches Air Force X-37B from Kennedy Space Center

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, built by Boeing is an unmanned spacecraft that has spent up to 700 days orbiting the Earth on previous missions

SpaceX preparing for launch of mini spy space shuttle for US Air Force despite Hurricane Irma warning

The launch of X-37B is a momentous one for Space X as it's the second time they're launching a national security payload. Cape Canaveral had already begun buckling down operations ahead of the possibility of Irma on Tuesday, entering what it calls Hurricane Condition (HURCON) 5 status.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket first stage stands atop Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida after launching the USA military's X-37B space plane on its fifth classified mission for the Air Force. It is boosted into orbit by a rocket and lands like an aircraft on a conventional runway. With a minimal number of separation events and nine first-stage Merlin engines, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is designed so that even if two of the engines shut down, the rocket can still operate. The company has now recovered one of its Falcon 9 boosters intact 16 times over the last two years, a capability officials say will reduce the cost of SpaceX's launches.

By noon, the Air Force had declared the launch a success.

On its last mission the "spaceplane" stayed in orbit for nearly two years, but it's unknown how long the current mission is expected to last. The four earlier launches were executed using United Launch Alliance's Atlas 5 rocket. The X-37B, built by Boeing, is an uncrewed vehicle, but resembles the Space Shuttle on a smaller scale.

Now the only rocket fully designed and developed in the 21st century, Falcon 9 delivers payloads to space aboard the Dragon spacecraft or inside a composite fairing.

What's also unclear how long the X-37B will remain in orbit.

A resuable shuttle, Thursday's launch is its fifth mission since its maiden flight in April 2010. The X-37B is going to a higher inclination orbit than usual but the X-37B's main mission is classified and is being fiercely guarded.

The Air Force hasn't yet disclosed when the X-37B will come back to Earth.

The exact goal of the X-37B was never revealed and the secrecy surrounding the project has led to speculation that the solar-powered X-37B can be used as a spy satellite or to deliver weapons from space.

"The three primary science objectives are to measure the initial on-orbit thermal performance, to measure long duration thermal performance, and to assess any lifetime degradation", the Air Force Research Laboratory said in a fact sheet.

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