Update November 16th, 7:25PM ET : On Thursday, SpaceX stated that it has decided to stand down from the launch as it reviews data of a fairing test the company did for another customer. SpaceX says it still has the opportunity to launch on Friday, but that may not happen depending on how long it takes the company to review the test data. More updates should come over the next day.
On Friday, November 17th, SpaceX is set to launch perhaps its most secretive payload yet: a classified government satellite built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman. The purpose of the mission, codenamed Zuma, is essentially unknown. It’s unclear what kind of spacecraft is going up, or which government agency the launch is for. All we really know is that Zuma is scheduled to go into lower Earth orbit on top of a Falcon 9 rocket out of Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The Zuma mission only became public in October, when NASASpaceflight.com reported on documents that SpaceX had filed with the Federal Communications Commission, requesting authorization for a mysterious “Mission 1390.” A few days later, several news outlets confirmed that the flight, also called Zuma, would launch a Northrop Grumman-made payload. The contractor had been assigned by the US government to find a rocket for the launch, and Northrop Grumman ultimately picked the Falcon 9.
“Northrop Grumman realizes that this is monumental responsibility and have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma,” Lon Rains, communications director for Northrop Grumman’s Space Systems Division, said in a statement to The Verge. Northrop Grumman has not released any further information on the spacecraft.
It’s not the first time that SpaceX has launched secretive payloads into orbit. After receiving certification in 2015 to launch military satellites, the company has already launched two classified payloads, and is slated to launch even more over the next couple of years. However, all of SpaceX’s missions for the military have known customers, such as the US Air Force or the National Reconnaissance Office. So far, no government office has claimed the Zuma mission. And the NRO, which usually announces the launches of its spy spacecraft, said that Zuma doesn’t belong to the agency.
Apart from its super unique payload, this SpaceX launch is otherwise routine. If the Falcon 9 flies tomorrow, it will attempt to land at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, located at the Cape. If that touchdown is successful, it’ll mark the eighth ground recovery for the company, and the 20th landing SpaceX has pulled off to date. Zuma also marks SpaceX’s 17th mission in 2017, the most the company has ever done in a single year, and more than double the number of missions in 2016. It’s possible the company could make an even 20 launches, if the new Falcon Heavy — an upgraded, heavy-lift version of the Falcon 9 — flies before the new year.
If SpaceX okays the launch, the Zuma mission is slated to take off tomorrow from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, sometime inside a launch window that lasts from 8PM to 10PM ET. Initially, the launch was supposed to go up on Wednesday at the same time, but SpaceX has repeatedly changed the day of the mission since then. The first delay was given without a reason. “Both Falcon 9 and the payload remain healthy,” SpaceX said in a statement on Wednesday. “Teams will use the extra day to conduct some additional mission assurance work in advance of launch.” On Thursday, the company announced another delay due to review of the fairing data.
SpaceX’s live coverage of the launch usually starts 15 minutes prior to takeoff. Given the flight’s secrecy, chances are the live broadcast won’t follow the satellite’s deployment. Check back then to watch as much of this mission as we can live.