SpaceX is getting ready to launch a top secret government satellite this week, but details of the mission are shrouded in mystery, as no particular government agency has yet been named as being in control of the Zuma project.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is scheduled to launch the Zuma satellite between 8pm and 10pm EDT Friday, January 5 from Pad 39A at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is still unclear what the government-owned satellite will do after it is blasted into space, but its destination will be somewhere in low-Earth orbit, according to a US Air Force execution forecast.
The Falcon 9 belongs to a family of two-stage-to-orbit medium lift launch vehicles created by SpaceX.
Zuma’s liftoff was originally scheduled for mid-November, but SpaceX pushed the launch date back so the company could study data from a previous payload-fairing test that they carried out for a different partner. The payload fairing is the nose cone which protects a spacecraft at the time of liftoff, according to Space.com.
Friday will also include a landing attempt by a previously launched Falcon 9, which heads back to Earth at Landing Zone 1, a SpaceX facility located at Cape Canaveral Air Force station. This station is next door to KSC, according to Space.com.
Before the previously scheduled launch in November, aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman confirmed that it obtained Zuma’s launch on the SpaceX Falcon 9, but the company did not give details as to which government agency was leading the project.
What makes this launch different from past SpaceX-related national security launches is that basic details about previous missions were announced. One flight, which took place in September, launched the robotic X-37B space plane for the Air Force. In another instance, a flight in May 2017 launched a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, which creates and operates the US’s fleet of spy satellites.
In the past, SpaceX has landed Falcon 9 boosters, a first-stage reusable rocket booster for the Falcon 9 orbital launch, a total of 20 times. It has also reflown used first-stage rockets five times. These activities are part of SpaceX’s push to create fully reusable rockets and spacecraft, which CEO Elon Musk has determined will cut the cost of spaceflights.
Zuma’s lift off from KSC’s Pad 39A will not be the first launch from that particular pad. This launch site also once hosted NASA’s Apollo moon and space shuttle mission launches.