Sunday night, SpaceX launched the Zuma payload for an undisclosed customer of Northrup Grumman. It was a classified payload, presumably for the National Security Administration, as most of the other likely suspects (USAF, NRO) are not generally shy about claiming a particular payload as their own. The launch had been delayed several times, due to concerns with the payload fairing, but on Sunday, the launch appeared to go off perfectly. The broadcast followed the vehicle on camera up to stage separation, and then as they watched the first stage return to Florida, they announced fairing separation and everything else was secret. This is not unusual for classified payloads, and indeed, this isn’t even SpaceX’s first classified payload. After the launch, the SpaceTrack database (maintained by US Space Command, a branch of the USAF dedicated to tracking orbital objects for the sake of collision avoidance) added an object designated USA 280 to their catalog, which at first blush would suggest it had reached orbit.
Two-line elements for the object have yet to be posted, and amateur spotters do not yet report having captured the object in their telescopes. Northrup Grumman has said precisely bupkis about it, neither confirming nor denying that it reached orbit or didn’t. SpaceX has said the launch was “nominal” with the vehicle performing flawlessly. However, rumors have begun to swirl that the satellite may have not only failed but possibly even deorbited. The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed Congressional aides who claimed it had failed to separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage, and consequently had been deorbited into the ocean when the stage cleaned itself up. But this has yet to be independently confirmed. Other rumors suggest a power failure, or a fault in its communication system, or some sort of damage during payload fairing jettison. As yet, however, no one is saying anything, and SpaceX is pressing ahead towards a very busy schedule in 2018, which would tend to imply the vehicle performed well.
Hmmm. Very interesting….
In the meantime, while we wait for drips and drabs of data to come out of program offices, here’s the launch coverage from SpaceX:
Citation: Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?
The Delta II rocket was the main workhorse for NASA launches for a long time; now, after this launch, there is just one of them left on Earth. (That last one left will fly next year, carrying ICESat-2.) It has been a phenomenally successful rocket, with the highest launch-to-success rate of any launch vehicle ever flown, except Saturn V (which only flew a handful of times in any case). This was the 155th Delta II, and the 99th consecutive successful flight; Delta II holds that record by a considerable margin, and if all goes well with the last mission next year, it will end its storied career with 100 consecutive successful missions.
JPSS-1, meanwhile, is the first of the Joint Polar Satellite System spacecraft. Intended to replace the POES constellation, JPSS was born out of the NPOESS (National Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite System) program that would have shared polar-orbiting weather data responsibilities with the Department of Defense. With that program dissolved, NASA/NOAA agreed to cover the afternoon orbit with JPSS, while the DoD would cover the morning orbit first with the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (their current and severely aging constellation) and then with the Defense Weather Satellite System. DWSS was subsequently cancelled, and there remains no replacement for the aging DMSP; so NOAA has signed a deal with Eumetsat, where Eumetsat will cover the morning orbit.
JPSS-1 is flying into a critical role, as we have become intensely dependent upon accurate forecasting, and the massively successful Delta II was a perfect vehicle to place it into orbit.
The Atlas V, performing flawlessly to place the classified NROL-52 payload into its unspecified orbit*, had a rare fifth launch attempt today. This is the first time any Atlas V rocket has had to make this many attempts. Of course, this one was launching from Florida, which is known for its fickle weather. But fifth time was the charm, and the spacecraft is away!
*Spaceflight observers suspect that NROL-52 is a data relay satellite intended for geostationary orbit. If they’re right, it will perform for the National Reconniassance Office a role similar to the civilian TDRS satellites operated by NASA, which allow continuous contact with spacecraft such as the ISS and the Hubble Space Telescope, among others.
The CRS-11 Dragon mission is now underway, the first with a reflown Dragon capsule. (The heatshield is new, as of course is the unpressurized trunk section and the solar panels, as these are discarded with each flight, burning up while the pressurized module returns to the Earth.) The Falcon 9 rocket was still brand-new, but the first stage will eventually be reused; it completed the fifth successful landing at Cape Canaveral.
This was the one hundredth launch from LC-39A.
Here’s the replay of the SpaceX webcast (jump ahead 16 minutes for the launch):
It’s been a while since I’ve had the joy of posting a spacecraft animation, and today I get to share one that’s very special to me — animation of a complete CST-100 mission. It’s not yet available anywhere I can just link it, but SpaceflightNow has posted it to their website. And alas, it doesn’t have sound yet. But it sure looks pretty. 😉
Cape Canaveral has a brand new zipline! But alas, it is not available to tourists. Not unless you’re a really, really, really rich tourist and have managed to book a ride on a CST-100 Starliner!
One of the requirements for a man-rated launch vehicle is some way to quickly escape the vehicle in case it’s about to go kablooie. Mercury and Gemini had no escape system, other than the vehicle’s own launch abort system (which in the case of Gemini, consisted of ejection seats that were believed to be nearly 100% certain to be fatal if used on the pad, due to the sidewise orientation of the vehicle before launch), other than riding the elevator back down and hoping really really hard. The first pad escape system that would save crews not yet in the vehicle or allow crews to safely egress during an abort was a super-fast elevator on the Saturn V launch umbilical tower that delivered the crews to a blockhouse under the pad, where they could survive for some time, long enough anyway for whatever was going on above to burn itself out and the fumes to dissipate. On Shuttle, things got a little spunkier, with the addition of the slidewire baskets that would let crews slide rapidly to safety — which would consist of several armored transports parked nearby, which they’d jump into and drive away as quickly as possible.
The slidewires were deemed more effective (and more reliable, being powered entirely by gravity) than the Apollo elevator, and so it is perhaps no surprise that ULA, in building a system to meet Boeing and NASA’s specifications, is opting for a wire again. Only instead of a set of baskets that can carry several crew apiece, this one is a zipline with a couple dozen single-person seats, enough to evacuate the crew and ground support personnel, and because they are individual, you just jump in it and go — you don’t have to wait.
But I gotta admit, part of me really likes the fact that this system isn’t being built by some stodgy old defense contractor, like most of the system. No, this one’s being built by a company that specializes in ziplines — Terra-Nova LLC. And it’s pretty much exactly the same system they build for tourist use at locations around the world. They’ve got extensive experience; from their perspective, this was actually a very small job….
Delta IV pulled off another flawless launch from Cape Canaveral today, placing the Wideband Global SATCOM-9 satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit. WGS-9 is a military commsat operated by the United States Air Force but jointly procured by five other nations: Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. This was not the first WGS satellite paid for by a foreign power; WGS-6 was contributed by Australia. And ground stations have been paid for partially by partner nations, who, again, receive bandwidth in proportion to their investment. USAF is moving towards launch of WGS-10 later this year, but that is expected to be the final element of the constellation, at least int the forseeable future.
This was the 35th flight of Delta IV, and the 108th successful Delta program launch in a row. This flew in the 5,4 configuration — 5 meter fairing, 4 solid rocket motors. Single-core Delta IV is expected to retire by the end of 2018, with only the Delta Heavy continuing on, alongside the Vulcan rocket that will be ULA’s next offering (intended to replace both Delta IV and Atlas V).