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Secret space plane, solar sail launch aboard Atlas V

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The Air Force’s mysterious space plane is back above the Earth — along with Bill Nye’s solar sail.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V lifted off Wednesday morning from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station with sundry cargo, including the Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The X-37B, a reusable spacecraft now on its fourth mission, is expected to reach low-Earth orbit after riding atop the Atlas rocket’s second stage, called the Centaur.

The Centaur, after releasing the spacecraft, will change altitude and release its other cargo — 10 CubeSats, or small satellites.

One of the CubeSats on this flight is LightSail, a solar sail owned by the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group led by CEO Bill Nye, the science educator and former TV host.

The X-37B looks like a small space shuttle, but it doesn’t have a crew. It can stay in space for years at a time. The last mission ended in October 2014 after 674 days in orbit.

The plane is controlled like a drone and lands like an airplane. The media nicknamed it the “secret space plane” because the Air Force won’t say much about what it does once it gets into space.

The LightSail is packed into a CubeSat about the size of a loaf of bread, but once in space its reflective sails will stretch out to 344 square feet. The Planetary Society is testing the sail to show that the sun’s energy can be used to power a spacecraft, and to demonstrate that the sails will deploy in space.

“It’s one thing to sit in physics class and show that this should be possible, but it’s another to do it,” Nye said Wednesday during United Launch Alliance’s webcast of the launch.

The other CubeSats include ones from the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA, the U.S. Naval Academy, the Aerospace Corporation, the Air Force Research Laboratory and California Polytechnic State University.