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SpaceX launches US Air Force's super-secret mini-shuttle

SpaceX has launched the US Air Force's super-secret space shuttle, a technology tester capable of spending years in orbit.

The unmanned Falcon rocket blasted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Centre as schools and businesses boarded up for Hurricane Irma.

It is the fifth flight for one of these crewless mini-shuttles, known as the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

Two USAF space planes have already logged a combined five and a half years in orbit, but officials will not say what the spacecraft are doing up there.

The last mission lasted almost two years and ended with a May touchdown at the runway formerly used by Nasa's space shuttles. The first one launched in 2010.

As has become customary, SpaceX landed its leftover booster back at Cape Canaveral for eventual reuse.

This was the first time SpaceX has provided a lift for the experimental mini-shuttle. The previous missions relied on United Launch Alliance's Atlas V rockets.

USAF officials said they want to use a variety of rockets for the X-37B programme to launch quickly if warranted.

The Boeing-built mini-shuttle is 29ft long with a 14ft wingspan. By comparison, Nasa's retired space shuttles were 122ft long with a 78ft wingspan.

SpaceX stopped providing details about the X-37B's climb to orbit a few minutes after lift-off at the air force's request. The booster's return to SpaceX's landing zone at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station was broadcast live.

"The Falcon has safely landed," a SpaceX launch controller announced. Cheers erupted at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

It was SpaceX's 16th successful return of a first-stage booster. Booster rockets are normally discarded at sea.


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