SpaceX launches military space plane ahead of Hurricane Irma

Since 2010, the X-37Bs have completed a total of four space missions and have spent increasingly lengthening durations in space.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Sep 11, 2017
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida carrying a US Air Force X-37B space plane to orbit.

The launch occurred at 10 AM EDT September 7 from the historic Launch Complex 39A at KSC ahead of Hurricane Irma, which is bearing down on Florida.

One of two such planes owned by the US Air Force, the X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), is un-crewed. Both were constructed by Boeing and look like small versions of the former US space shuttles.

Like the shuttles, the 29-foot-long (8.8-meter-long), 9.6-foot-tall (2.9-meter-tall) space planes launch vertically and return horizontally on a runway.

Their payload bays are about the size of a pickup truck's bed.

Since 2010, the X-37Bs have completed a total of four space missions and have spent increasingly lengthening durations in space. Their current record is 718 days in orbit.

Exactly what the space planes do during their time in orbit remains a mystery. While the Air Force maintains they are testing new technologies for future space missions and bringing science experiments into space, some suspect they are testing a space weapon.

Air Force officials deny any weapons testing is being done.

In a statement, they acknowledged that this latest mission, designated OTV-5, carries an experiment that will "test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment."

This plane will traverse a higher orbit than any of the previous OTV missions.

"The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program," emphasized Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director Randy Walden.

"It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV, so it can more fully support the growing space community."

This is the first X-37B mission to launch on a SpaceX rocket. The other four launched on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V. It is the second national security launch for SpaceX, which carried a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite into orbit in May.

Approximately 2.5 minutes after launch, the Falcon 9's first and second stages separated. The first stage headed back to Earth and successfully completed a vertical landing at SpaceX's Cape Canaveral facility, marking the 16th successful first stage landing for the company, while the second stage carried the space plane into orbit.




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