SpaceX launches secret United States military space plane ahead of Irma

SpaceX preparing for launch of mini spy space shuttle for US Air Force despite Hurricane Irma warning

On Thursday, as Hurricane Irma makes its way toward Florida for possible landfall this weekend, SpaceX managed to launch a secret, un-crewed space plan for the U.S. Air Force - just in the nick of time.

If the classified mission of SpaceX and US Air Force turns out successful, the company will become the first private firm to launch a highly classified mission for US Air Force. Cape Canaveral had already begun buckling down operations ahead of the possibility of Irma on Tuesday, entering what it calls Hurricane Condition (HURCON) 5 status.

The X-37B mission is the second national security launch for SpaceX since the Air Force certified the Falcon 9 in 2015 to compete for Defense Department business.

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A communications satellite for SES and EchoStar is scheduled to fly into geostationary orbit no earlier than October 2 from pad 39A aboard a previously-flown Falcon 9 booster.

USAF officials said they want to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B programme to launch quickly if warranted. The previous missions relied on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.

It is the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini-shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. The X-37B, built by Boeing, is an uncrewed vehicle, but resembles the Space Shuttle on a smaller scale. This marks the space plane's fifth mission, according to SpaceX. The four X-37B missions to date flew in orbits tilted between 38 and 43.5 degrees to the equator, but the next one will reach higher latitudes on each lap around Earth.

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The SES 11/EchoStar 105 spacecraft has been delivered to Cape Canaveral from its Airbus Defense and Space factory in Toulouse, France.

But this week's rocket launch is not what an ordinary SpaceX launch looks like.

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

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