SpaceX sneaks in X-37B spy plane launch ahead of Hurricane Irma

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SpaceX launched an unmanned space plane for the U.S. Air Force Thursday morning, as Hurricane Irma took aim at Cape Canaveral.

In yet another milestone in its efforts to reuse the spaceplane, the Elon Musk company SpaceX today launched Falcon 9 rocket for the USA military.

The spaceflight will be the fifth trip into orbit for the Boeing-built X-37B, also known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) which conducts secret research and orbital missions for the Air Force.

Yes, you read that correctly; this marked SpaceX's 16 overall successful landing of the Falcon 9 (and the seventh on terra firma). The Falcon 9 deployed the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, as the payload is officially called, and then its first stage booster returned to Earth for a planned recovery at Cape Canaveral Air Force base via SpaceX's LZ-1 landing pad.

The two Air Force space planes have already logged a combined 5 ½ years in orbit. For comparison, the space shuttles were 122 feet (37 m) long, with 78-foot (24 m) wingspans.

But this week's rocket launch is not what an ordinary SpaceX launch looks like. "This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies".

The X-37B in its SpaceX fairing.

It launched from launch pad 39A, which NASA had once used for Apollo moon missions and many Space Shuttle missions.

We do know that the experimental program is created to help work out the kinks in reusable spacecraft, and there are two X-37B vehicles, built by Boeing. Over all four previous missions, the space craft have spent a total of 2,085 days in space. She suggested that price was a factor in the Air Force's decision to go with Falcon 9.

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

A commercial South Korean television broadcast satellite named Koreasat 5A is third in line on SpaceX's launch manifest, with liftoff from Florida scheduled for mid-October.