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.
The Elon Musk-founded company lofted the X-37B space plane to orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket at 10 a.m. ET from Cape Canaveral, Florida. About 10 minutes later, the first stage of the rocket came in for a picture-perfect landing back on a pad at the Cape.
Due to the secret nature of the Air Force program, SpaceX wasn’t able to show the space plane actually getting into orbit, and we don’t know much about what the X-37B is going to do up there.
We do know that the experimental program is designed to help work out the kinks in reusable spacecraft, and there are two X-37B vehicles, built by Boeing.
The space planes aren’t very large, clocking in at 29 feet long and 9 feet 6 inches high, but they are able to stay in orbit for months or even years.
The X-37B mission that ended in May lasted for 718 days in space.
Though we don’t know much about the X-37B’s mission specifics, we do know a little bit about where it’s going in orbit thanks to SpaceX.
The company was able to land the first stage of its rocket back on solid ground instead of a drone ship in the ocean. SpaceX can only perform these land landings if its payload is relatively light or if it’s heavy and going to a low orbit.
The Air Force hasn’t yet disclosed when the X-37B will come back to Earth.