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

SpaceX can add another first to its ever-increasing list: On Thursday, it successfully launched the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B experimental spaceplane for the first time. This makes it the only launch provider to accomplish this besides the United Launch Alliance, and should help ensure SpaceX gets more business from U.S, defense contracts in future.

The launch vehicle used was SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which took off from the company’s LC-39A launch facility at Kennedy Space Center on Thursday morning at 10 AM ET (7 AM PT). The Falcon 9 deployed the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, as the payload is officially called, and then its first stage booster returned to Earth for a planned recovery at Cape Canaveral Air Force base via SpaceX’s LZ-1 landing pad. The goal was to get the launch up before the arrival of Hurricane Irma, and they succeeded.

While the specifics of the X-37B’s mission aren’t available to the public, it will be “conducting experiments” post-launch. Its last mission saw it orbit Earth for two years before returning via a landing in May. The X-37B, built by Boeing, is an uncrewed vehicle, but resembles the Space Shuttle on a smaller scale. It’s also designed to land like the Shuttle, using a landing strip like you’d use for an airliner.

The X-37B is the first uncrewed space plane for the U.S., and is designed for reusability at a reasonable cost. It’s aim is to fly and test new tech, and to return experimental results in a way that protects cargo and makes it suitable for post-operation examination. One of the goals with this launch was basically just to prove SpaceX as a viable launch option, which Boeing says will help ensure the flexibility and continued viability of the X-37B for experimental use.

For SpaceX, this marks the 16th recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage. The next mission to reuse a refurbished recovered booster is EchoStar 105’s SES-11 mission, which is taking place in October and which will reuse a booster first used for the CRS-10 ISS resupply mission.