'Zuma' Will Launch Today, and We Have No Idea What It Is

Inside SpaceX's 3rd national-security launch
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 16, 2017 11:12 AM CST
'Zuma' Will Launch Today, and We Have No Idea What It Is
A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket is shown in this file photo.   (AP Photo/John Raoux)

As far as secrets go, "Zuma" is a juicy one. That's the name given to the payload SpaceX is scheduled to blast into low earth orbit from Cape Canaveral sometime between 8pm and 10pm local time Thursday, and as CNET puts it, "just about all that is known about Zuma is that it's going to help the US government do ... something." Deepening the mystery is that no government agency has claimed the payload. Federal contractor Northrop Grumman was tasked with "acquiring launch services for this mission," per a statement to CNET, but about as much as it has to say is this: "We have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma." What has been cobbled together thus far:

  • Florida Today notes that the plan—to have the Falcon 9 booster return and land—reaffirms that Zuma is headed to a low earth orbit and could mean it doesn't weigh as much as past SpaceX missions. "Heavier satellites typically require drone ship landings or expendable first stages due to fuel constraints," it explains.

  • The Zuma mission only came to light via October regulatory filings, and that's relatively unusual. Quartz characterizes it as "quick action in a business used to months or years of pre-flight preparation."
  • Satellite tracker Marco Langbroek offers one theory to Spaceflight Now, while noting this "to a high degree remains speculation and wishful thinking": that Zuma has some connection to the classified National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite known as USA-276 that launched in May. Its orbit is inclined 50 degrees to the equator, which syncs with what other satellite watchers expect of Zuma. Further, USA-276 will pass over central Florida at 8:08pm.
  • Space.com notes that USA-276 is one of two national-security launches SpaceX has thus far completed; the other, in September, launched the Air Force's super-secret X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle. Unlike with Zuma, in both those cases, basic details were provided.
  • But Aviation Week in October did get confirmation from the NRO that Zuma doesn't belong to it.
  • As for what the launch means for SpaceX, Ars Technica puts it like so: "If successful it would validate the company as a major player to meet the country's military launch needs." Further, it'll clock in as launch 17 of the year, which is more than double the number of launches SpaceX has ever previously done in a year.
(More SpaceX stories.)

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