SpaceX launches top-secret space shuttle before Irma reaches Florida

A Falcon 9 carrying X-37B beneath its protective shroud minutes before its Sept. 7 liftoff from Kennedy Space Center Florida. Credit SpaceX video

A Falcon 9 carrying X-37B beneath its protective shroud minutes before its Sept. 7 liftoff from Kennedy Space Center Florida. Credit SpaceX video

- Despite the incoming category 5 hurricane, Irma, SpaceX will perform a launch at 9:50 a.m. Thursday.

The launch has received unexpected traction both because of the secretive mission and because of the timing of the launch despite Hurricane Irma warning.

Live images broadcast by the California aerospace company showed a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the unmanned X-37B drone lifting off at 10:00 am (1400 GMT) from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

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OTV-5 is the first X-37B mission to use a SpaceX rocket.

It was the Falcon 9's 16th successful launch and re-entry and the seventh time the reusable rocket achieved a landing on solid ground, as opposed to the company's floating landing platforms.

It is the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini-shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. The space plane most recently returned to Earth back in May, after a two-year sojourn in orbit, where it was presumably doing something. For comparison, the space shuttles were 122 feet (37 m) long, with 78-foot (24 m) wingspans. The first one launched in 2010. This marks the space plane's fifth mission, according to SpaceX. The Air Force usually says it's running experiments to test new satellite technology.

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On its last mission, the solar-powered X-37B stayed in orbit for 718 days before returning to land on May 7 - longer than any of its previous flights.

Previously, Lockheed Martin's Atlas rockets brought the Boeing vehicle into space. "This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies". Boeing houses and prepares the X-37B spaceplanes for launch inside former space shuttle hangars near the space center's huge Vehicle Assembly Building.

The X-37B in its SpaceX fairing. SpaceX has not announced if Koreasat 5A will blast off from pad 39A or pad 40, the company's other East Coast launch complex at Cape Canaveral still under repairs after a rocket explosion a year ago damaged the facility.

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