Hurricane Irma may be closing in on Florida by the hour, but that didn't stop the US Air Force and SpaceX from sending a mysterious shuttle into space on Thursday afternoon. What exactly the unmanned ship, referred to as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, has been tasked to accomplish is unclear.
The Air Force's X-37B, or Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).
A delay to Friday would diminish launch probabilities even further to 40 percent "go" as Irma churns about 650 miles to the southeast of the Eastern Range, which encompasses Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Air Force did not disclose whether the secondary payloads riding with the X-37B will deploy from the Falcon 9 rocket itself or from the spaceplane's cargo bay.
The exact goal of the X-37B was never revealed and the secrecy surrounding the project has led to speculation that the solar-powered X-37B can be used as a spy satellite or to deliver weapons from space. For comparison, the space shuttles were 122 feet (37 m) long, with 78-foot (24 m) wingspans.
Previous X-37B launches had been performed by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Here is a listing of the X-37B's flight history compiled by Spaceflight Now's Justin Ray. Its fate aboard the Falcon 9 second stage will likely remain unknown until amateur observers begin to catalog and track the vehicle as it orbits the Earth.
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.
It will now need to be moved from its base as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida in time for Saturday morning.
At the end of the landing burn in Stage 1, the rocket landed at Cape Canaveral successfully, amid cheers from the team.