SpaceX launches hush-hush space plane (probably)

The rocket company pushes a classified drone out of the atmosphere, just days before Hurricane Irma could collide with the Kennedy Space Center.

Eric Mack
Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Contributing editor Eric Mack covers space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.

SpaceX launched the Air Force's secretive X37-B "space plane" from Kennedy Space Center in Florida Thursday morning, just a few days before Hurricane Irma is expected to clobber the Sunshine State.


The X37-b sits in a payload fairing atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in preparation for launch.

Video screenshot by Eric Mack/CNET

What happened to the X37-B after the Falcon 9 rocket pushed the classified payload beyond Earth's atmosphere is a little less certain. The SpaceX webcast cut away and didn't show the deployment of the military's unmanned space drone. 

The Air Force is known to have at least two of the Boeing-built drones that resemble a small space shuttle. Thursday's launch marked the beginning of the fifth mission for what the military calls its "Orbital Test Vehicle" (OTV) that can stay in orbit for nearly two years.

Publicly, the Air Force says the X37-B is a testing platform for advanced technologies for spaceflight, but few details have ever been provided. The conclusion of the fourth OTV mission came with a landing that was announced to the public only via the sonic boom it created over Florida in May.

Following the launch, SpaceX landed the rocket's first stage at a nearby on-shore landing zone, marking the 16th time Elon Musk 's pioneering space company has recovered one of its rockets. 

SpaceX plans to reuse one of those recovered rockets for a commercial satellite launch no sooner than October. 

As for when we'll see the X37-B next, best bet is just to listen for a sonic boom many months from now.

X-37B Space Plane: Space Force's Record-Setting Orbiter

See all photos

Crowd Control: A crowdsourced science fiction novel written by CNET readers.

Solving for XXThe tech industry seeks to overcome outdated ideas about "women in tech."