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Air Force X-37B space shuttle to launch Thursday from Kennedy Space Center

X-37B prepares for flight. Photo by USAF.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The U.S. Air Force officially announced on Thursday the firm launch date for the next mission of the unmanned military research space shuttle scheduled to make its first flight riding a top a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The Air Force X-37B space plane is scheduled to lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday to begin the program’s fifth experimental flight, and the first launched by SpaceX. The first four missions were launch by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral AFS.

The military nor SpaceX would release the exact launch time or window due to security surrounding the mission.

This will be the third flight of the first autonomous Boeing-built X-37B spacecraft, and is expected to spend over one year soaring around the planet between 400 to 600 miles above. The Sept. 7 launch will also mark the fifth mission flown by both OTV’s to test new technologies and spacecraft systems in orbit.

X-37B after arrival from its last mission. Photo: USAF

“The many firsts on this mission make the upcoming OTV launch a milestone for the program,” Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director Randy Walden said on Friday. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”

The Air Force refers to the Kennedy Space Center as the ‘Home of the X-37B’, with a specialized post-flight refurbishment hanger, and the capability to support OTV launches.

Next week’s launch will begin exactly four months following the conclusion of the fourth flight which lasted 718 days in space. Combined all four missions have loged 2,085 days in low Earth orbit.

“This mission carries small satellite ride shares and will demonstrate greater opportunities for rapid space access and on-orbit testing of emerging space technologies,” the Air Force added on Friday. “Building upon the fourth mission and previous collaboration with experiment partners, this mission will host the Air Force Research Laboratory Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader payload to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment.”

X-37B prepares for flight. Photo by USAF.

The delta-winged craft’s launch from America’s Spaceport will occur from historic pad 39-A — the same launch pad which saw NASA’s Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle program launch from. Today, 39-A has been refurbished to support the Falcon 9 flights, and will be tested in 2018 to support the return of human-rated Dragon spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

The belly of the mini-space shuttle is protected with a black thermal protection system designed by NASA. Aligned with protective black and white thermal tiles, the mini space shuttle has a wing span of 14 feet, 11 inches from tip to tip.

About ten minutes following the Falcon 9 launch, it’s seperated first stage is scheduled to land back at Cape Canaveral.

(Charles Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)

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Charles Atkeison

Written by Charles Atkeison

Charles A Atkeison is a long time aerospace journalist having covered both military and civilian aviation, plus 30 space shuttle launches from Cape Canaveral. He has produced multimedia aerospace content for CNN, London's Sky News, radio, print, and the web for twenty years. From flying with his father at age 5 to soaring as a VIP recently with the Navy's Blue Angels and USAF Thunderbirds, Charles continues to enjoy all aspects of flight.

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