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

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

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

SpaceX successfully launched the Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle aboard a Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on Thursday.

After the launch, SpaceX will attempt to land the first stage booster on land, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The Boeing-built X-37B spaceplane arrived in orbit shortly after liftoff to complete SpaceX's 13th mission of the year, a record busy year for the California-headquartered commercial launch operator.

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At the end of each X-37B mission, the winged craft glides down from space to a horizontal runway landing. The previous missions relied on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.

We do know the X-37 has been to space four times since April 2010 and that it spends a long time in orbit every time it flies.

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.

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In total, the vehicle has more than 2,000 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. By comparison, Nasa's retired space shuttles were 122ft long with a 78ft wingspan. Its last mission saw it orbit Earth for two years before returning via a landing in May.

That launch followed back-to-back wins of the first two Global Positioning System 3 launch contracts the Air Force put out for bid.

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

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It will now need to be moved from its base as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida in time for Saturday morning. One thing that wasn't missing, however, was the background applause of SpaceX employees watching the launch, particularly during the stage 1 separation and when the Falcon 9 boost stage successfully landed back at Cape Canaveral.

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