SpaceX successfully launches mysterious X-37B spaceplane and recovers first stage

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the U.S. Air Force's X-37B space plane into orbit from NASA's Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida on September 7, 2017.

Although much is dependent on the weather as Hurricane Irma is expected to be around at the time of the launch. Thursday's launch will be the 13th Falcon 9 liftoff this year, after being banned from launches late last year due to an explosion in their Cape Canaveral launch pad.

"The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, is an experimental test program to demonstrate technologies for a reliable, reusable, unmanned space test platform for the U.S. Air Force", the military branch's website says.

ULA CEO Tory Bruno disputes that ULA was even afforded the opportunity to participate in the bidding process, however.

Following second stage separation and main engine cutoff, Falcon 9 1040 landed smoothly at the center of SpaceX's land-based landing pad just over 5 miles away from where it lifted off. As mentioned, this will be the fifth flight of the Air Force's X-37B program.

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The space plane will also operate in a higher-inclination orbit on the OTV-5 mission than it has during any other mission, Air Force officials said. Every previous flight of the X-37B began with an Atlas V launch from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. By comparison, Nasa's retired space shuttles were 122ft long with a 78ft wingspan.

The X-37B is the first uncrewed space plane for the US, and is designed for reusability at a reasonable cost.

SpaceX has been valued at $21bn (£16bn), making it one of the most valuable privately owned companies in the world. This marks the space plane's fifth mission, according to SpaceX. The X-37B, built by Boeing, is an uncrewed vehicle, but resembles the Space Shuttle on a smaller scale.

SpaceX has launched the Air Force's super-secret space shuttle.

Another Falcon 9 rocket is due for launch October 4 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the third batch of 10 next-generation voice and data relay satellites for Iridium. X-37B's fourth mission set an endurance record, racking up 718 days in orbit before landing in early May at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

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