Spaceflight Insider

SpaceX launches secretive ‘Zuma’ mission

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 CRS photo credit Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

Archive Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

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 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.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida with the classified Zuma mission on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

The mission had been scheduled for late 2017, but was delayed due to issues with the Falcon 9’s payload fairing. Photo Credit: Mike Deep / SpaceFlight Insider

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.”

Landing of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage during Zuma mission image credit SpaceX

The Falcon 9 first stage lands some seven minutes 53 seconds into the flight. Image Credit: SpaceX

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,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Amazing how routine these rockets launching and landing so much, especially at night. I wonder how well the Heavy handles 3 stage 1 rockets landing at same time.

Another damn NRO launch WEDNESDAY !!! ULA is preparing to start it’s 2018 launch schedule with a Wednesday flight of a classified National Reconnaissance Office mission from California on a Delta IV rocket. Who is inspecting what these billion dollar satellites do and whether we really need them? What good do we get from them? Politics is really about HOW we spend money and I feel we could better spend this money on teacher salaries, food for our own hungry people, and healthcare, yes?

They just reported else where that spiral venting could be seen over Sudan. If it’s wayward rocket, it could be there was issue with Stage 2. Their reporting it’s normal for them to vent fuel prior to separation. I hope that thing got where it was going, we won’t know until the Air Force decides to say if the launch was successful or something happened.

I wish they stamp out all this speculation. Classified or not, something happened.

It’s all speculation. Chances are that the launch and satellite went according to plan as per over 94% of all SpaceX launches and well over that for USgovt satellites.

Neil, you got a little something on your nose there… Considering this is the only the third US govt satellite SpaceX has launched? The fact you’d toss that in there has to be one of the lamest excuses I’ve seen your kind make over the past few days.

It’s a satellite launch or just another launch. Why does a government launch increase the risk?

Dunno, why did you bring it up in the first place? Typical NewSpace troll tries to make SpaceX look good by making a stupid comment and when caught – tries to make it the other person’s fault.

Sorry I don’t understand your last comment. I was referring to launch risk and suggesting that gov’t launches don’t necessarily increase risk hence my use of SpaceX overall launch success rate.
I also pointed out that any comments on the fate of the mission is purely speculative given its highly secretive nature.
I’ll now add that SpaceX has publicly stated that their vehicle performed nominally. It would be very bad form for them to make this claim if it wasn’t true since they rely on both gov’ts and commercial business.

“Chances are that the launch and satellite went according to plan as per over 94% of all SpaceX launches and well over that for USgovt satellites.” SpaceX has only launched 3 USgovt satellites and your intimating they have some massively successful track record in terms of USgovt launches. That is as disingenuous as it is transparent Neil. They’ve only launched 3 USgovt missions, their success rate in that regard will matter when they reach an appreciable number. Until then? Don’t make statements like that. It makes you look desperate and phony.

⚠ Commenting Rules

Post Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *