Super-Secret Zuma Spysat Kicks Off 2018 US Launch Manifest Jan. 5 with Unique 2nd Launch/Landing Campaign from Alternate SpaceX Pad: Watch Live
Ken Kremer -- Space UpClose -- 3 Jan 2018KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The second launch campaign for the super-secret ‘Zuma’ spysat, claimed by no U.S. government entity, kicks off the 2018 U.S. launch manifest on Jan. 5 on a unique Falcon 9 launch/landing mission that’s now reset to soaroff an alternate SpaceX launch pad from Florida’s Spaceport Friday evening.
The weather outlook is promising at this time although it will be chilly for Florida – in the mid-40s.
The nighttime launch had been slated for Thursday, Jan. 4 but was just switched to Friday for reasons unknown - and the company will again attempt to recover and soft land the first stage booster back at the spaceport some eight minutes later.
Early Wednesday, Jan. 3, SpaceX tweeted confirmation of a Jan. 5 launch target after conducting a propellant loading test of the Falcon 9 booster.
“Team at the Cape performed a propellant loading test of Falcon 9 on Pad 40 this morning – additional static fire test of the rocket was not necessary. Targeting January 5 launch of Zuma.”
SpaceX was forced to scrap classified Zuma’s originally targeted launch date this past November following an unexpected delay to resolve an issue uncovered late in the processing flow with the Falcon 9 rockets nose cone – even as the vehicles stood poised atop the originally scheduled launch pad at Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
In the meantime SpaceX has reactivated their rebuilt pad at Complex 40 with the successful Dragon CRS-13 cargo resupply launch for NASA to the ISS on Dec. 15. They simultaneously decided to reassign Zuma’s launch from pad 39A to pad 40 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.
With 2 active launch pads at the Cape - pads 39A and 40 - SpaceX can pick up the launch pace even further and likely exceed their record breaking mark of 18 launches achieved in 2017.
Zuma’s launch was moved to pad 40 to make way for SpaceX’s long awaited Falcon Heavy triple core debut blastoff from pad 39A as soon as this month– read our earlier stories here.
CRS-13 was the first launch from refurbished pad 40 in over a year following extensive repairs from the catastrophic Sept 2016 Amos-6 launch pad accident that heavily damaged it.
Liftoff of the clandestine spy satellite codenamed ‘Zuma’ has thus been rescheduled for Friday evening Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT). It marks the 1st mission of 2018 and utilizes a new SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX’s newly reactivated seaside Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40).
The Zuma launch window at pad 40 extends for two full hours - opening at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT) and extending until closing at 10 p.m. EST (0300 GMT) on SLC-40 from the Florida Space Coast.
Zuma remains cloaked in mystery, unclaimed even by the elusive NRO spy agency, andwhose goals are veiled in virtually complete darkness.
The little we can confirm is 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.
“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.”
Otherwise Zuma is a total mystery - to the delight of the spymasters!
The new launch date and new launch pad follow on the heels of the indefinite postponement announced last November to deal with a lingering late issue discovered during testing of a payload fairing for another customer. The rocket and payload were eventually moved from pad 39A to pad 40.
You can watch the launch live on a SpaceX dedicated webcast starting about 15 minutes prior to the 8 p.m. EDT (0100 GMT) liftoff time. The launch window closes at 10p.m. EDT (0300 GMT).
Watch the SpaceX broadcast live at:
Currently the weather outlook is rather promising along the Florida Space Coast with a 90% chance of favorable conditions at launch time according to U.S. Air Force meteorologists with the 45th Space Wing Weather Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base.
The primary concerns on Jan. 5 are only for the Thick Cloud Layer Rule and potentially for upper-level winds.
The odds decline slightly but remain high at 80% favorable for the 24-hour scrub turnaround day Jan. 6.
The launch window remains the same on Jan. 6 at 8 to 10 p.m.
The two stage 229-foot-tall (70-meter-tall) Falcon 9 rocket will be rolled out to pad 40 from the nearly processing hangar and likely raised to vertical launch position sometimeon Friday, if all goes well.
The routinely done static fire test involving all nine Merlin 1D first stage engines was conducted ahead of the original November 2017 launch campaign.
On Nov. 17 SpaceX announced a launch ‘stand down’ to allow engineers the additional time needed to carefully scrutinize all the pertinent data before proceeding with the top secret Zuma launch.
“We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” SpaceX spokesman John Taylor said at the time.
SpaceX has not divulged exactly what the fairing problem was.
The fairing is jettisoned about three minutes after liftoff. Any failure to deploy would result in a total loss of the mission.
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.
However we don’t know anything about the ‘Zuma’ payloads characteristics and vital statistics - despite the seemingly endless leaks streaming out of Washington these days.
“The Zuma payload is a restricted payload,” Rains told me.
So quite naturally we’re all curious for any nugget of information from which we might draw some reasonable conclusions based on the scientific method of analysis.
The little bits we do know is that the launch services for the ownerless government payload are being procured 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.”
One juicy tidbit we do know is that it is intended for launch to low Earth orbit (LEO).
“It will be launched into Low Earth Orbit,” Rains informed me.
Low Earth Orbit extends to roughly 1000 miles (1600 km) altitude and includes the ISS orbit for example at approx. 250 miles (400 km).
“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 not even that is known for sure.
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.
The long launch window should significantly increase the chance of launching Zuma and removing any errant or intentional boaters and flyers from the restricted airspace around the launch pads.
That’s increasingly important these days given that a pair of critical NASA science missions last November were scrubbed near T Zero on both US East and West coast launch pads in Virginia for the Orbital ATK Antares rocket and in California for the ULA Delta II rocket.
The word ‘Zuma’ apparently doesn’t even appear on the nose cone- although the word is featured on the mission patch artwork and the press kit.
‘Homeless’ government satellites not even claimed by the NRO are rather rare.
A recent example is Clio, an unclaimed mission from Lockheed Martin.
Clio launched at night on a ULA Atlas V on September 16, 2014 from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl.
An unclassified aspect of the mission codenamed ‘Zuma’ and one of very few tidbits of information we can absolutely confirm (and not deny) is that SpaceX will also attempt to recover the 16 story tall first stage booster with a soft landing on the ground back at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
So lucky eyewitnesses can expect a series of extremely loud sonic booms to rock the space coast region about eight minutes after liftoff.
To date SpaceX has recovered 20 first stage boosters by land and by sea.
The next launch from the Cape boasting an actual targeted launch date is slated for Jan. 18 when the USAF SBIRS GEO 4 missile warning tracking satellite lifts off on a ULA Atlas V.
The Falcon Heavy could launch anytime after Zuma starting mid-January or later.
Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.