Science

Billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX launches a secret Air Force space drone

Billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX launches a secret Air Force space droneā€

SpaceX has launched a top-secret shuttle from the Kennedy space centre in Florida, pre-empting the onset of category five Hurricane Irma.

At 10am Florida time, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifted off, launching the mysterious X-37B spaceplane into orbit.

The X37-b sits in a payload fairing atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for launch.

After the launch, SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage booster on land, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. About 10 minutes later, the first stage of the rocket came in for a picture-perfect landing back on a pad at the Cape.

It was the Falcon 9's 16th successful launch and re-entry and the seventh time the reusable rocket achieved a landing on solid ground, as opposed to the company's floating landing platforms. Touchdown was near flawless, with the rocket landing directly on the launch pad's SpaceX logo.

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The launch is set for today, September 7th, between 9:50am EDT and 2:55am EDT, though the exact launch timing will be determined based on weather, spacecraft readiness, and a million other factors that SpaceX has to account for.

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. Every previous flight of the X-37B began with an Atlas V launch from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The two manless vehicles have spent a combined 5.5 years orbiting in space. The four X-37B missions to date flew in orbits tilted between 38 and 43.5 degrees to the equator, but the next one will reach higher latitudes on each lap around Earth.

One such OTV-5 experiment that has been divulged is the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload, which will "test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long-duration space environment", according to an Air Force statement. "This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies".

Military officials have lauded the X-37B's ability to return experimental hardware back to Earth for inspection and reuse.

Not much is known about the Air Force's new unmanned space plane, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, that SpaceX launched.



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