After landing back on Earth this May, the top-secret US Air Force X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-5) took off again with a boost from SpaceX. What is it up to in space? That’s classified.
What we do know is that the unmanned Boeing spaceplane is a rocket-airplane hybrid that blasts off like a rocket but lands on a runway like your flight back from vacation. It has been through four mission and has floated around in orbit for a total of 2,085 days (its latest stint out there lasted 718 days) before landing with a sonic boom. But. This mission was a first because it wasn’t launched into low earth orbit from the usual Atlas 5 rocket, but a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
SpaceX has actually been launching military payloads since its certification in 2015, and it will be going beyond just getting things in orbit when it starts launching US Air Force satellites in 2018. It’s already sent a spy satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is totally James Bond. The only thing the Air Force has given away about the mission is that it will be test-driving electronics and oscillating heat pipes in space. Whatever other experiments might be going on outside Earth’s atmosphere aren’t about to be revealed, because you know how the military is about secrecy. Air Force officials are optimistic about joining forces with the company whose name has become synonymous with rocketing into the future.
“The ability to launch the Orbital Test Vehicle on multiple platforms will ensure a robust launch capability for our experiment designers,” said director of the US Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office Randy Walden. “We are excited about this new partnership on creating flexible and responsive launch options and are confident in SpaceX’s ability to provide safe and assured access to space for the X-37B program.”
On its last trip back to Earth, the spaceplane was also the first to touch down at Kennedy Space Center since the space shuttle Atlantis did in 2011. X-7B spaceplane missions were previously launched out of the Edwards Air Force base in California, but the Air Force has since moved one of the hangars to Florida’s Space Coast, so the Kennedy Space Center is now a one-stop spaceport for touch-ups, launching, landing.
At least the launch managed to beat Hurricane Irma right before it bombarded Cape Canaveral with 180-mph winds. The eerily calm morning during which the spaceplane took off betrayed nothing of the lethal incoming storm.