So here’s what we know so far about that top-secret SpaceX Zuma payload

Contributed by
Nov 19, 2017

You know that mysterious (and indefinitely postponed) SpaceX Zuma payload launch we’ve been dying to find out more about? We just did. Sort of.

Even though Zuma is supposedly a high-security national security satellite—which has been the media’s best guess on every corner of the internet—this much secrecy about a payload being shot into space is rare. Zuma will be launched by aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman on one of those monster SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. This is as much as Northrop Grumman’s communications director Lou Rains told about the undercover mission:

“The Zuma payload is a restricted payload,” said Rains. “Northrop Grumman is proud to be part of the Zuma launch. The event represents a cost-effective approach to space access for government missions.”

SpaceX was never this secretive about its two previous national security launches. Elon Musk’s enterprising company of the future revealed basic mission details for the recent launch of the Air Force X-37B robotic space plane, and even the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite that took off in May, which was SpaceX's inaugural flight for the Department of Defense. If Musk was able to provide surface details about the launch of an NRO spy spacecraft and even a launch video, why is Zuma still mostly in the dark?


A Falcon 9 liftoff. Credit: SpaceX

While the answer to that is floating somewhere out in space, some government agency is thought to be behind the payload. What remains nebulous is which agency it was launched for.

At least SpaceX was open enough to divulge several things. When (and if) liftoff happens, Zuma will head to low-Earth orbit (LEO), up to about 1,240 miles above the surface. No one has any idea what it will be up to after that. It could orbit the planet, head for the International Space Station, or touch base with a weather satellite or communications spacecraft already out there. SpaceX will also bring the first stage of Falcon 9 down for a soft touchdown at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Landing Zone 1 facility. Falcon 9 first stages need some fuel left to make that touchdown, meaning Zuma won’t burn all the booster’s fuel.

Zuma was expected to launch Wednesday. After a 24-hour delay, the reason for which stayed under wraps until the company admitted that it needed extra time to review data, Zuma still didn’t take off during its scheduled launch time between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. EST on Thursday night. SpaceX was apparently still reviewing data on Friday (the alternate launch date) and has left us hanging as to their new proposed launch date.

The payload is still on Earth as of now, but once it does take off, you’ll be able to livestream the launch online right here.  


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