Published: Fri, September 08, 2017
Science | By Nancy Frank

SpaceX Rocket Launches X-37B Space Plane on Secret Mission, Aces Landing

SpaceX Rocket Launches X-37B Space Plane on Secret Mission, Aces Landing

An SES official said the launch date will depend on Hurricane Irma's impact on the Space Coast, and engineers are taking precautions to safely store the satellite during the storm. The mysterious space plane called X-37B will be launched in orbit from NASA's Kennedy Space Centre.

If the classified mission of SpaceX and US Air Force turns out successful, the company will become the first private firm to launch a highly classified mission for US Air Force.

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Though we don't know much about the X-37B's mission specifics, we do know a little bit about where it's going in orbit thanks to SpaceX. Last time it flew, the space plane was in orbit for almost two years, breaking the record for a reusable spacecraft in space.

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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. For comparison, the space shuttles were 122 feet (37 m) long, with 78-foot (24 m) wingspans. This makes it the only launch provider to accomplish this besides the United Launch Alliance, and should help ensure SpaceX gets more business from U.S, defense contracts in future.

Artist's concept of the X-37B spaceplane in orbit.

Publicly, the Air Force says the X37-B is a testing platform for advanced technologies for spaceflight, but few details have ever been provided.

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. The X-37B, built by Boeing, is an uncrewed vehicle, but resembles the Space Shuttle on a smaller scale.

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Together, the two X-37Bs have completed four space missions, each of which has set a new duration standard for the program.

Another Falcon 9 rocket is due for launch October 4 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the third batch of 10 next-generation voice and data relay satellites for Iridium.

The secretive program is based in two former space shuttle hangars near the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC, allowing both spacecraft to land at the nearby Shuttle Landing Facility.

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

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