• Long exposure launch/landing steak shot of secretive Zumapayload that launched Jan 7, 2018 from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
  • Long exposure launch/landing steak shot of mystery payload code namedZumathat launched Jan 7, 2018 from Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. Liftoff at left and landing at right as seen from the NASA Causeway. Credit: Ken Kremer/SpaceUpClose.com
  • Ultra top secret Zuma surveillance payload satellite blasts off on SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Space Launch Complex 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Jan. 7, 2018. Zuma was the 1st US launch of 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/SpaceUpClose.com

Ultra Top Secret Zuma Zazzles Zooming to Orbit on SpaceX’s 1st 2018 Launch, Landing Dazzling Space Coast

Ken Kremer -- Space UpClose -- 7 Jan 2018

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Ultra top secret Zuma zazzled hordes of Space Coast spectators as it zoomed to orbit Sunday night, Jan. 7, on SpaceX’s and America’sfirst launch and landing of 2018 on a flight originally slated for last November - but was postponed in position on the pad due to a belated potential technical glitch with the nose cone.

Liftoff of the Falcon 9 carrying covert Zuma took place precisely at the opening of the launch window Sunday evening Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT) from SpaceX’s newly reactivated seaside Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Barely eight minutes later the 16-story tall first stage nailed a dazzlingly dramatic precision guided and rocket assisted upright soft landing back at the Cape at Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) - the 21st thus far in the past 2 years.

Check out our Space UpClose photo and video gallery.

The Zuma mission is so secret that although it is being launched for the US governmentno agency is actually claiming ownership – not even the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO), the US government agency that owns and runs the nations fleet of spy satellites. Thus in a sense it’s a ‘homeless’ satellite - but almost surely possesses certain components comprising testing of the most advanced and clandestine technology vital for US national defense. But we have no idea what that is.

The little we do know and can confirm is that Zuma was targeted “for low Earth orbit,” and that the launch contract was arranged as a commercial enterprise under the auspices of Northrop Grumman Corporation, spokesman Lou Rains confirmed to SpaceUpClose.

Low Earth Orbit extends to roughly 1000 miles (1600 km) altitude and includes the ISS orbit for example at approx. 250 miles (400 km).

The Falcon 9 launch contract was awarded as a means to significantly slash launch costs for whatever U.S government entity is responsible for Zuma.

Whereas virtually every other aspect of the clandestine payload is completely classified the SpaceX Falcon 9 when it roared off pad 40 under virtually cloud free night skies andtasked with delivering Zuma to orbit “as a restricted payload” also delivered a very public and stunningly spectacular light show that no one present will soon forget.

The nine Merlin 1D first stage engines ignited to produce 1.7 million pounds of liftoff thrust fueled by liquid oxygen and RP-1 kerosene propellants that briefly turned night into day.

The drama was palpable as expectant crowds lined the beaches and causeways surrounding Florida’s Spaceport hoping for good luck at last on weekends end for their last chance to witness the mystery satellite codenamed Zuma roar of pad 40, before having to return to home for workweeks start and the likelihood of facing another weather scrub if the liftoff slipped to Monday.

The rocket flew away from the Cape in a northeasterly direction.

The stages separated as planned about 2 minutes and 24 seconds after liftoff and flew apart and produced a gloriously looking bubble of fire high overhead unlike any we’ve seen.

The second stage continued to orbit as the first stage conducted its initial boostback burn.

The second stage continued skyward but the live SpaceX webcast cutoff Zuma coverage as planned and entered a communications blackout at the request of the customer. However SpaceX did continue with the booster landing coverage that succeeded as planned.

We saw a subset of the 1st stage engines reignite to carry out the entry and landing descent burns as it plummeted back to Earth and accomplished an upright and intact soft landing – a thrilling conclusion for all who witnessed the magnificent accomplishment.

Watch this Zuma launch video compilation from colleague Jeff Seibert:

Video Caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the Zuma mission from Pad 40 of CCAFS. The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Pad 40, after its' planned launch from Pad 39A was delayed by a possible fairing issue. Its' launch location was changed to Pad 40 after it became operational late last year to clear the way for final preparation of Pad 39A for the Falcon Heavy test flight later this month. Credit: Jeff Seibert

The Zuma launch has been several time delayed from earlier initial targets this past week as pad teams conducted pad testing and rocket fueling operations of the “headless” boosters first two stages to confirm the vehicles readiness to launch on this critical mission for an unnamed government agency.

The two stage 229-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the mysterious Zuma surveillance satellite enclosed inside the payload fairing were rolled out and raised to launch position early Sunday morning at pad 40- with the Moon shining brightly overhead under brilliant blue skies that as it turned out portended a brilliant night launch.

SpaceX’s original plans to launch covert Zuma from KSC last November were thwarted due to the unexpected need to resolve a last minute payload fairing issue with the Falcon 9 of a different customer as the vehicle stood poised atop the originally scheduled launch pad at Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX ultimately decided to switch launch pads to make way for the debut flight of the Falcon Heavy in mid to late January - read our related articles.

Zuma remains cloaked in mystery, unclaimed even by the elusive NRO spy agency, andwhose goals are veiled in virtually complete darkness.

We can confirm that the launch contract was arranged as a commercial enterprise under the auspices of Northrop Grumman Corporation – done as a means to significantly slash launch costs for whatever U.S government entity is responsible for Zuma.

That goal is totally in line with SpaceX founder and billionaire CEO Elon Musk’s entire company-wide goal of cutting costs while developing the Falcon and Dragon family of rockets and spaceships.

It may well we testing advanced new surveillance and imaging technologies possibly targeting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and other US adversaries.

The launch with SpaceX was contracted by Northrop-Grumman.

“The U.S. Government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission,” Lon Rains, Northrop Grumman Director of Communications, told Space UpClose last November.

“We have procured the Falcon 9 launch service from SpaceX.”

“The Zuma payload is a restricted payload,” Rains told me.

However we don’t know anything about the ‘Zuma’ payloads characteristics and vital statistic - despite the seemingly endless leaks streaming out of Washington these days.

We do know is that the launch services for the ownerless government payload are beingprocured by Northrop Grumman Corporation under a commercial contract with a stated goal to find a develop a “cost effective approach”

“Northrop Grumman is proud to be a part of the Zuma launch,” Rains added.

“This event represents a cost effective approach to space access for government missions.”

“As a company, Northrop Grumman realizes this is a monumental responsibility and we have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma.”

In addition to launch services Northrop Grumman Corporation may have manufactured the Zuma payload – although that’s not even known.

SpaceX’s reputation is on the line for future high value national security payloads of the most critical importance to the US governments Defense and Spy agencies.

SpaceX has successfully launched a pair of diverse national security payloads this past year already with identified customers. Namely the NROL-76 surveillance satellite for the NRO on May 1, 2017 and the OTV-5 spaceplane for the USAF on Sept. 7, 2017.

Neither the word ‘Zuma’ nor the colorful patch even appear on the nose cone- although the word is featured on the mission patch artwork and the press kit.

Instead just the words “Northrop Grumman” are stenciled on the nose cone- see my photos.

Today’s launch was the first of what could ultimately be as many as 30 mission launches for SpaceX in 2018 utilizing both their East and West Coast launchpads according to statement made in the past year by the company’s top management; CEO Elon Musk and President Gwynne Shotwell.

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite coverage of SpaceX Zuma, Falcon Heavy, ULA and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.