SpaceX launches Air Force X-37B from Kennedy Space Center

US aerospace company SpaceX on Thursday launched its Falcon 9 rocket for the USA military, carrying the mysterious X-37B space plane to orbit for its fifth secret mission.

"The fifth OTV mission continues to advance the X-37B's performance and flexibility as a space technology demonstrator and host platform for experimental payloads", the Air Force said in a release last week.

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. Its fate aboard the Falcon 9 second stage will likely remain unknown until amateur observers begin to catalog and track the vehicle as it orbits the Earth.

Both spacecraft have spent a combined 2,085 days in space. The X-37B is going to a higher inclination orbit than usual but the X-37B's main mission is classified and is being fiercely guarded.

Like the space shuttle, the X-37B launches vertically and comes to back to Earth horizontally, in a runway landing. By comparison, Nasa's retired space shuttles were 122ft long with a 78ft wingspan.

That launch followed back-to-back wins of the first two Global Positioning System 3 launch contracts the Air Force put out for bid. On all four previous flights, the X-37Bs rode atop United Launch Alliance Atlas V launchers.

The X-37B is the first uncrewed space plane for the USA, and is designed for reusability at a reasonable cost.

You can watch a livestream of the launch and landing attempt below. The X-37B is the Air Forces' unmanned and reusable space plane.

But this week's rocket launch is not what an ordinary SpaceX launch looks like. 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.

SpaceX plans to reuse one of those recovered rockets for a commercial satellite launch no sooner than October.

At the end of the landing burn in Stage 1, the rocket landed at Cape Canaveral successfully, amid cheers from the team.

  • Jon Douglas