SpaceX has skirted Hurricane Irma to send a top-secret military shuttle into space...
SpaceX has launched a top-secret shuttle from the Kennedy space centre in Florida, pre-empting the onset of category five Hurricane Irma.
The private company has successfully sent up one of its Falcon 9 rockets, carrying a highly classified US Air Force X-37B space plane on its fifth mission. Details about the spacecraft’s mission are under lock and key, but we know it previously returned to Earth in May following a two-year trip in orbit.
The US military claims the unmanned X-37B is furthering "operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies", which could involve recovery of satellites or debris for repair or scrap on Earth. It doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to guess that the US is also testing surveillance technologies. The shuttle measures only (29ft) long, with a 4m (14ft) wingspan, so it may also be the case that NASA is testing a smaller shuttle for a human crew.
Speaking of reusable technology, SpaceX also managed to successfully land its booster at Cape Canaveral, where it will be turned around for future use. The potential savings this method offers is one reason that SpaceX is able to compete with other military contractors. The previous four launches of the experimental X-37B mini shuttle, for example, were done with an Atlas V rocket manufactured by United Launch Alliance.
"The benefit we're seeing now is competition," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in June. "There are some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price."
Hurricane Irma is continuing its course towards Florida, having left a trail of destruction in Puerto Rico and a string of Caribbean islands. Yesterday, a Delta aeroplane made headlines after it successfully skirted the category five Hurricane on its journey to New York.
The rocket’s landing marks SpaceX’s 16th successful return of a first-stage booster. While SpaceX stopped providing details about the X-37B’s accent to orbit soon after liftoff, the booster’s return landing was broadcast live. You can watch it below.