SpaceX launches super-secret spaceplane as Hurricane Irma nears Florida

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SpaceX launched the Air Force's secretive X37-B "space plane" from Kennedy Space Center in Florida Thursday morning, just a few days before Hurricane Irma is expected to clobber the Sunshine State.

The Falcon 9 has now returned to its launchpad at Cape Canaveral in the 16th successful return of a first-stage booster, and the seventh to take place on solid ground. The main goal today was getting the reusable X-37B - also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) - into orbit.

While X-37B's mission has been tentatively scheduled to last 270 days, the Air Force has said that could change depending on the testing progress, how the vehicle performs in orbit and conditions at the landing facility.

The X-37B mission that ended in May lasted for 718 days in space.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson disclosed during an early June congressional hearing that SpaceX, not ULA, would be launching X-37B this time around.

What exactly the X-37B does up in space is classified military information, although for this flight, it will carry an experiment called the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader (ASETS-II) in its pickup-bed-sized payload bay. And a heat sink like that could be useful on a high-end spy satellite. By comparison, Nasa's retired space shuttles were 122ft long with a 78ft wingspan.

The X-37B is the first uncrewed space plane for the US, and is designed for reusability at a reasonable cost. That launch, which will employ ULA's most-powerful variant of its Atlas 5 rocket, would have required SpaceX to have used its Falcon Heavy, which is still months from its debut.

The Air Force has also not confirmed which of the two X-37B vehicles was launched Thursday.

About 2.5 minutes into the flight, the Falcon 9's two stages separated.

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. 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.

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