SpaceX to launch spaceplane today before Irma arrives

SpaceX to launch spaceplane today before Irma arrives

With Hurricane Irma looming off the Florida coast, SpaceX beat unfavorable weather odds Thursday morning to send the U.S. Air Force's X-37B reusable spaceplane back into orbit for its fifth classified mission.

This was the X-37B program's first launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle.

What's also unclear how long the X-37B will remain in orbit. You might remember the X-37B from its previous trip to space, which it returned from in May of this year. 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.

Built by Boeing's Phantom Works division and managed by the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Office, each spaceship has a wingspan of almost 15 feet (4.5 meters) and a length of more than 29 feet (8.9 meters).

The X-37B, built by Boeing, looks much like NASA's retired space shuttles, only much smaller.

SpaceX has been valued at $21bn (£16bn), making it one of the most valuable privately owned companies in the world.

Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, said the many firsts on this mission make Thursday's launch "a milestone" for the X-37B program.

In a sign of how long the X-37B can stay aloft, the third mission lasted 674 days while the fourth, which concluded in May, spent 718 days in orbit. About 10 minutes later, the first stage of the rocket came in for a picture-perfect landing back on a pad at the Cape. Four earlier missions rode United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets launched from Cape Canaveral.

Another Falcon 9 rocket is due for launch October 4 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the third batch of 10 next-generation voice and data relay satellites for Iridium.

The unmanned Falcon rocket blasted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre as schools and businesses boarded up for Hurricane Irma.

According to the U.S. Air Force, this mission was also launched into, and will be landed from, "a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B's orbital envelope".

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