Space Force's experimental X-37B launches from Cape Canaveral

©Orlando Sentinel

A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying the USSF-7 mission for the U.S Space Force lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on Sunday, May 17, 2020. - Jeff Spotts/United Launch Allian/TNS/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — An Atlas V rocket with the U.S. Space Force’s experimental mini space shuttle successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Sunday morning.

“3. 2. 1. There’s ignition and liftoff of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with USSF-7 for the United States Space Force on a mission dedicated to America Strong,” said commentator Tyler Strickland on the company’s live stream of the launch.

The 9:14 a.m. launch that ferried the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle back to space for the sixth time took place amid mostly clear skies from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 41.

The launch was the 84th for an Atlas V rocket and 139th ULA mission overall, but only the seventh time for Atlas V in this particular configuration that allowed for a wider payload and no side-mounted solid rocket boosters. The X-37B is 29 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan.

The launch was deemed essential amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the Department of Defense and ULA dedicated it as part of the America Strong campaign, which has also included flyovers from the Air Force Thunderbirds and Navy Blue Angels across U.S. cities in the last few weeks. ULA personnel followed health guidelines including wearing face coverings and keeping social distance during the launch countdown.

“The success of this mission resulted from collaboration with our customer while working through challenging, and ever changing, health and safety conditions,” said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs in a press release. “We were honored to partner with the U.S. Space Force to dedicate this mission to first responders, front-line workers, and those affected by COVID-19. It is truly a unique time in our history and I want to thank the entire team for their continued dedication and focus on mission success.”

It was the second National Security Space Launch for the newly designated branch of the armed forces.

Bad weather on Saturday from what formed into the season’s first tropical storm created a rocket domino effect that also pushed a planned Sunday SpaceX launch of its Starlink satellites.

That SpaceX Falcon 9 mission now targeting a 3:10 a.m. liftoff Tuesday is slated to carry another 60 of the company’s Starlink satellites from launch complex 40, the eighth planned Starlink launch for the company.

ULA’s Sunday launch returned the uncrewed X-37B designed by Boeing back to low-Earth orbit for another long-term mission.

One of at least two X-37B vehicles returned from orbit on its fifth mission in late 2019, landing at Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility after spending more than two years in space. All but one of the six missions were launched by ULA since its first in 2010 with SpaceX ferrying it to space the last time around in 2017. The five previous missions have seen the vehicle in orbit for 2,865 days.

The Department of Defense uses the vehicle to test technologies for long-duration missions and bring them safely back to Earth. The latest mission will host more experiments than any previous by using for the first time a service module attached to the rear of the spaceplane.

Some announced missions include the FalconSat-8, a small educational satellite developed by U.S. Air Force Academy with five experiments on board; two NASA experiments to study radiation and other space effects on various materials and on seeds to grow food; and a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory experiment that seeks to transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy that can be transmitted to the ground.

The vehicle remains an Air Force asset, but the newly designated Space Force is responsible for its launch, life in orbit and landing.

“The X-37B team continues to exemplify the kind of lean, agile and forward-leaning technology development we need as a nation in the space domain,” said U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond. “Each launch represents a significant milestone and advancement in terms of how we build, test, and deploy space capabilities in a rapid and responsive manner.”

ULA’s next planned launch will be the Mars 2020 mission with rover Perseverance on an Atlas V rocket on July 17 from Cape Canaveral.

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©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)