SpaceX launches hush-hush space plane (probably)

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

Today, SpaceX successfully launched one of its most important (and classified) payloads to date: the U.S. Air Force's Boeing X-37B spy plane.

This will be the first time that SpaceX will be using its Falcon 9 rocket to launch a ship for the Air Force.

The X-37B mission is the second national security launch for SpaceX since the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 in 2015 to compete for Defense Department business. Safety and mission success were critical in the design of the Falcon 9 rocket.

A communications satellite for SES and EchoStar is scheduled to fly into geostationary orbit no earlier than October 2 from pad 39A aboard a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster.

The last mission lasted nearly two years and ended with a May touchdown at the runway formerly used by Nasa's space shuttles.

The X-37 has hitched previous rides to space on a United Launch Alliance rocket. It's the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

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

A resuable shuttle, Thursday's launch is its fifth mission since its maiden flight in April 2010. The uncrewed vehicles look like NASA's now-retired space shuttle orbiters, but are much smaller; each X-37B is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed. 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.

That launch followed back-to-back wins of the first two Global Positioning System 3 launch contracts the Air Force put out for bid. The space plane most recently returned to Earth back in May, after a two-year sojourn in orbit, where it was presumably doing something.

The SES 11/EchoStar 105 spacecraft has been delivered to Cape Canaveral from its Airbus Defense and Space factory in Toulouse, France.

"Everything proceeded nominally", SpaceX launch commentator Michael Hammersley said.

"Hurricane Irma is forecast to be approximately 950 miles southeast of the Spaceport during Thursday's launch attempt, so while Irma certainly bears watching, it will not be a factor in Thursday's weather", forecasters said in a Tuesday update, noting that thick and cumulus clouds were the primary concerns.

At the end of the landing burn in Stage 1, the rocket landed at Cape Canaveral successfully, amid cheers from the team.

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