SpaceX launches secretive ‘Zuma’ mission
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — California-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) launched a “Full Thrust” Falcon 9 rocket with the “Zuma” payload on January 7, 2017, at 8:01 p.m. EST (01:01 GMT Jan. 8). This evening’s launch was a long time in the making and signaled the start of a busy year of firsts for the NewSpace firm.
While it was reported on Space.com that the payload was for the U.S. government and that it was produced by aerospace firm Northrop Grumman, little else is known about what it is.
While most payloads of this nature are clearly listed as coming from the U.S. Air Force or National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), it isn’t even known which U.S. agency had their payload sent to low-Earth orbit (LEO) via the two-stage Falcon 9.
This evening’s flight is the third time that the NewSpace firm has been tapped to fly a payload on behalf of the U.S. government. A Falcon 9 was used to launch one of Boeing’s X-37B space planes this past September on behalf of the U.S. Air Force. Earlier in the year, in May, SpaceX got the NROL-76 mission underway on behalf of the NRO.
This flight saw more than its fair share of confusion, as rumors spread that SpaceX would not be hosting its webcast for the launch of Zuma. This turned out to be false, SpaceX’s webcast for the Zuma mission started about 15 minutes prior to the start of the flight at 7:45 p.m. EST (00:45 GMT Jan. 8).
SpaceX had an estimated two hours in today’s launch window in which to get the rocket off of the pad and into the skies above, but they didn’t need it. The rocket lifted off from historic SLC-40 at nearly the very opening of the window (liftoff appears to have occurred at 8:01 p.m. EST).
The mission had been scheduled to launch several times last year, but it was pushed back to on multiple occasions for undisclosed reasons. SpaceX released the following statement regarding the rescheduling to November 16:
SpaceX is now targeting Thursday, Nov. 16, for [the] launch of the Zuma mission. Both Falcon 9 and the payload remain healthy; teams will use the extra day to conduct some additional mission assurance work in advance of launch. The launch time and window remain the same for Thursday, opening at 8:00 p.m. EST and remaining open until 10:00 p.m. EST.
This past week alone, launch dates of Jan. 4, 5 and 7 have all been released with the 45th Space Wing noting at one point that the launch date was “to be determined.”
This highly complex and choreographed series of events that heralded this evening’s launch began about one hour and thirteen minutes prior to the launch window opening. At that time, the launch director confirmed that the propellant loading had begun. Three minutes later, the Falcon 9’s RP-1 fuel – a highly refined version of kerosene – was pumped into the rocket. At around 35 minutes prior to launch, liquid oxygen was loaded onto the rocket.
Some 7 minutes before T-minus 0, the Falcon 9 entered a chill down period in preparation for flight.
At just one minute before the opening of the launch window, the flight computer was ordered to begin pre-flight checks and the propellant tanks were brought up to flight pressure. Fifteen seconds later, SpaceX’s launch director gave the go-ahead for launch.
At just three seconds prior to the opening of the launch window, the engine controller commands the engine ignition sequence to start with the Falcon 9 lifting off of the pad at T–0. The payload, whatever it is, was on its way to orbit.
The rocket and its precious cargo arced high above Florida’s Space Coast on its way to its predetermined orbit, passing through the region of the atmosphere known as maximum dynamic pressure, or “max Q”, approximately one minute and 10 seconds into the flight. During max Q, the rocket’s own speed, in a manner of speaking, conspires with the pressure outside to place the Falcon 9 under the greatest amount of stress that it encounters during its path “uphill.”
First stage main engine cutoff (MECO) took place some two minutes and 16 seconds after the Falcon 9 had left the launch pad at LC-39A. Three seconds later, the Falcon 9’s first and second stages parted ways with the first stage heading back for a landing back near the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 (LZ-1) – formerly Launch Complex 13.
At two minutes and 21 seconds of mission elapsed time, the Falcon 9’s second stage activated with the boost back phase of the first stage’s flight occurring at two minutes and 30 seconds into the flight. The first stage conducted its re-entry burn just six minutes and nine seconds after it had launched. This was followed an estimated minute and 42 seconds later by another flawless landing at LZ-1.
Then, at an approximate time of three minutes and eight seconds into the flight, the payload fairing (the rocket’s nose cone) had completed its mission. It separated and was discarded, falling back to Earth.
While little is publicly known about what “Zuma” actually is, the Falcon 9 rocket that sent it to orbit has become a fixture of East and West Coast launches. SpaceX has used Launch Complex 39 (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida and Space Launch Complex 3E (East) located at Vandenberg Air Force Base to launch 18 missions in 2017.
One of the most anticipated flights SpaceX has been working to conduct since 2012 could, potentially, take place later this month as well – the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy (FH) rocket. At present, that mission is slated to get underway from LC-39A on Jan. 15.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.