Air Force launches X-37B spy plane from Florida

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off at 9:14 a.m. EDT Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying the X-37B spy plane toward orbit. Photo by Joe Marino/UPI 

ORLANDO, Fla., May 17 (UPI) -- The Air Force launched the sixth mission of the uncrewed X-37B spy plane toward orbit at 9:14 a.m. EDT Sunday from Florida with several experiments on board.

Space Force propelled the Boeing-built space plane atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, which is adjacent to Kennedy Space Center.

The mission start had been delayed from Saturday morning because of high winds at the launch site and a heavy cloud cover.

The launch was held following protocols because of tight restrictions on access to the Air Force station because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In collaboration with the U.S. Space Force and Air Force, this mission has been dedicated in honor of front-line workers and those affected by COVID-19," United Launch Alliance said in a news release Friday.

This was the 84th flight for an Atlas rocket since 2002. It came off the pad Sunday with 860,200 pounds of thrust produced by its RD-180 main engine.

Experiments on board are to include studying the effects of space travel on various materials, and the effect of space radiation on seeds.

The mission will be the first time the plane uses a service module to host experiments. The module is an attachment at the rear of the vehicle that allows additional experimental payload capability to be carried to orbit.

The mission also will deploy the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, which will conduct several experiments in orbit. The satellite will carry five experimental payloads for the academy, along with two NASA experiments.

Another experiment from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory will transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, with the goal of transmitting that energy to the ground.

The last X-37B mission was launched Sept. 7, 2017 and ended Oct. 27, 2019, for 779 days, 17 hours and 51 minutes. It was the first launch of that vehicle on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and the plane's longest mission.

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