SpaceX is racing Hurricane Irma this morning to get its Falcon 9 rocket off the pad at Cape Canaveral and launch the Air Force's X-37B-an autonomous spaceplane that orbits for hundreds of days at a time on classified missions-up into orbit. With Hurricane Irma looking increasingly likely to hit Florida, the center is being locked down in preparation.
The spaceflight will be the fifth trip into orbit for the Boeing-built X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) which conducts secret research and orbital missions for the Air Force. While the secretive nature of the Orbital Test Vehicle missions mean that live coverage ended after the first stage landed, this resulted in awesome live coverage of the landing, as is now routine.
X-37B, an approximately 5,000 kg reusable spaceplane, could remain in orbit for as long as two years, and possibly even longer.
USAF officials said they want to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B programme to launch quickly if warranted.
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The X-37B, which looks somewhat like a miniature version of the retired Space Shuttle, has a wingspan of just under 15 feet and weighs around 11,000 pounds. The first one launched in 2010.
Previous X-37B launches had been performed by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. "This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies". This marks the space plane's fifth mission, according to SpaceX.
By noon, the Air Force had declared the launch a success. She suggested that price was a factor in the Air Force's decision to go with Falcon 9.
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. SpaceX has not announced if Koreasat 5A will blast off from pad 39A or pad 40, the company's other East Coast launch complex at Cape Canaveral still under repairs after a rocket explosion past year damaged the facility.