SpaceX launches secret Air Force spaceplane

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket thundered away from Florida Thursday just ahead of Hurricane Irma, boosting an Air Force spaceplane into orbit on a classified mission, the fifth flight of an unpiloted X-37B spacecraft and the secretive program's first launch atop a SpaceX rocket.

While details were classified, the unpiloted X-37B spaceplane was believed to be bound for a relatively low orbit, leaving the Falcon 9's first stage with enough left-over propellant to fly back to Florida, landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station about eight minutes after launch.

While the Falcon 9's second stage steadily pushed its Air Force payload toward orbit, the first stage flipped around, fired three of its nine engines to reverse course, slowed for atmospheric entry and then descended atop a brilliant jet of exhaust from a single engine, extended four landing legs and touching down at the center of the landing pad.

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