SpaceX launches Air Force's super-secret minishuttle

September 7, 2017 by Marcia Dunn
In this frame from video provided by SpaceX an unmanned Falcon rocket launches from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. (SpaceX via AP)

SpaceX launched the Air Force's super-secret space shuttle on Thursday, a technology tester capable of spending years in orbit.

The unmanned Falcon rocket blasted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, as schools and businesses boarded up for Hurricane Irma.

It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless minishuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The two Air Force space planes have already logged a combined 5 ½ years in orbit. But officials won't say what the spacecraft are doing up there. The last mission lasted almost two years and ended with a May touchdown at the runway formerly used by NASA's space shuttles. The first one launched in 2010.

As has become customary, SpaceX landed its leftover booster back at Cape Canaveral for eventual reuse.

This was the first time SpaceX has provided a lift for the experimental minishuttle. The previous missions relied on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets. Air Force officials said they want to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B program, to launch quickly if warranted.

The Boeing-built minishuttle is 29 feet long, with a 14-foot wingspan. By comparison, NASA's retired space shuttles were 122 feet long, with a 78-foot wingspan.

This undated photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows an X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. An unmanned Falcon rocket that carried one of these experimental planes blasted off Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, from Florida's Kennedy Space Center. (U.S. Air Force via AP)

SpaceX stopped providing details about the X-37B's climb to orbit, a few minutes after liftoff at the Air Force's request. The booster's return to SpaceX's landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, however, was broadcast live.

"The Falcon has safely landed," a SpaceX launch controller announced. Cheers erupted at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

It was SpaceX's 16th successful return of a first-stage booster. Booster rockets are normally discarded at sea.

In this frame from video provided by SpaceX an unmanned Falcon rocket launches from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. (SpaceX via AP)

In this frame from video provided by SpaceX a leftover booster rocket lands at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. SpaceX launched the Air Force's super-secret space shuttle on Thursday, a technology tester capable of spending years in orbit. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. (SpaceX via AP)
SpaceX launches an unmanned Falcon rocket from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. (Malcolm Denemark/Florida Today via AP)
A SpaceX unmanned Falcon rocket launches from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP) /Florida Today via AP)
A SpaceX unmanned Falcon rocket launches from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. (Craig Bailey/Florida Today via AP)

Explore further: Reused rocket back in port after satellite launch by SpaceX

More information: SpaceX: www.spacex.com/
Air Force: www.patrick.af.mil/

Related Stories

SpaceX launches Taiwan's first home-built satellite

August 24, 2017

SpaceX on Thursday launched the first satellite designed and built entirely in Taiwan, a spacecraft that aims to boost disaster forecasts and mapping, environmental observation and space research.

Recommended for you

Climbing the ladder to life detection

June 25, 2018

In the past two decades, NASA spacecraft have identified potentially habitable environments throughout the solar system and beyond. Spacecraft on Mars have found evidence that lakes and streams once covered the planet, protected ...

Planetary nebula lasers

June 25, 2018

Astronomical masers (the radio wavelength analogs of lasers) were first identified in space over fifty years ago and have since been seen in many locations; astronomical lasers have since been seen as well. Some of the most ...

HESS J1943+213 is an extreme blazar, study finds

June 21, 2018

An international group of astronomers have carried out multi-wavelength observations of HESS J1943+213 and found evidence supporting the hypothesis that this gamma-ray source is an extreme blazar. The finding is reported ...

The Rosetta stone of active galactic nuclei deciphered

June 21, 2018

A galaxy with at least one active supermassive black hole – named OJ 287 – has caused many irritations and questions in the past. The emitted radiation of this object spans a wide range – from the radio up to the highest ...

'Red nuggets' are galactic gold for astronomers

June 21, 2018

About a decade ago, astronomers discovered a population of small, but massive galaxies called "red nuggets." A new study using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory indicates that black holes have squelched star formation in these ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.