Sat, Sep 09, 2017 - Page 7 News List

SpaceX sends super-secret military drone into orbit

MISSION UNKNOWN:The US Air Force said it wants to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B program, which would give it the ability to launch quickly if warranted

AP, CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida

A Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket, carrying a crewless US Air Force X-37B spacecraft, lifts off from NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on Thursday.

Photo: AFP / SPACEX

Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) on Thursday launched the US Air Force’s super-secret space shuttle, a technology tester capable of spending years in orbit.

The automated Falcon 9 rocket blasted off from Florida’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, as schools and businesses boarded up for Hurricane Irma.

It is the fifth flight for one of the crewless mini-shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The two air force spacecraft have already logged a combined five years in orbit.

However, officials will not say what the spacecraft are doing up there.

The last mission lasted almost two years and ended with a touchdown in May at the runway formerly used by NASA’s space shuttles. The first X-37B mission was launched in 2010.

As has become customary, SpaceX landed its leftover booster back at Cape Canaveral for eventual reuse.

This was the first time SpaceX has provided a lift for the experimental mini-shuttle. Previous missions relied on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets.

Air force officials said they want to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B program, to launch quickly if warranted.

The Boeing-built mini-shuttle is 8.8m long, with a 4.3m wingspan. By comparison, NASA’s retired space shuttles were 37.2m long, with a 23.8m wingspan.

SpaceX stopped providing details about the X-37B’s climb to orbit a few minutes after liftoff at the air force’s request.

However, the booster’s return to SpaceX’s landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was broadcast live.

“The Falcon has safely landed,” a SpaceX launch controller said, as cheers erupted at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

It was SpaceX’s 16th successful return of a first-stage booster.

Booster rockets are normally discarded at sea.

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