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?
A Falcon 9 rocket successfully placed the SES-11/EchoStar 105 spacecraft onto geosynchronous transfer orbit, and recovered the first stage after an exceptionally hot reentry from this high-energy trajectory. This was their third flight of a reused stage.
SpaceX completed one more launch early this morning from Vandenberg AFB, precisely placing the ten spacecraft on board into the vehicle into Plane 4 of the Iridium NEXT constellation, successfully recovering the first stage. There’s no rest for the weary, however — SpaceX is on target for another launch, this one from the opposite coast, on Wednesday.
Today was the scheduled liftoff day for the fifth X-37 mission (OTV-5), and the first aboard a Falcon 9. (X-37 was designed from the start to be compatible with almost any launch vehicle, including the Space Shuttle, but its first four launches were all aboard the Atlas V.) As a bonus, since SpaceX is still unable to use their original Florida launchpad, Cape Canaveral Air Station’s SLC-40, this launch used the pad they’re adapting for Falcon Heavy, Kennedy Space Center’s venerable LC-39A. So LC-39A got to launch another spaceplane after all. 😉 (LC-39A’s last spaceplane launch was STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle program, just over six years ago.)
Coverage of the ascent stops with first stage separation, as normal for classified flights*, but since this was Falcon 9, we got to see coverage of the first stage continue all the way to touchdown back at the Cape. Now, SpaceX gets to scramble to safe it and stash it safely in a hangar in advance of Hurricane Irma.
*X-37 is not a classified spacecraft, but its missions are generally classified. This one does carry one unclassified payload, the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, for the Air Force Research Laboratory. It will “test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipe technologies in the long duration space environment”. Satellites already use heat pipe technology to draw waste heat away from sensitive electronic components (since obviously fans don’t work for cooling a spacecraft computer), but this new technology will be lighter and cheaper. All the other payloads, as well as their quantity and the target orbit and any planned maneuvers, remain classified. But they are probably also experimental technologies, since X-37 offers a unique opportunity to test equipment for a long duration in space and recover it for extensive engineering analysis afterwards.
SpaceX successfully completed their first flight for the National Reconnaissance Office, carrying an undisclosed classified payload to orbit, designated NROL-76. As is typical for NRO launches, coverage of the climb to orbit went only as far as first stage burnout. However, SpaceX still had plenty of first stage footage still to produce, as the stage returned to land back at the Cape. As a result of that and the favorable lighting conditions to view the rocket climbing away from the historic LC-39A complex, using the exceptional long-range tracking cameras available at KSC, this may be the most spectacular first stage flyback footage yet:
This morning, a Falcon 9 rocket roared into space from Kennedy Space Center’s LC-39A, the first commercial launch to lift off from this NASA launch facility. (Previous Florida launches of the Falcon 9 were from the neighboring Cape Canaveral Air Station, operated by the USAF.) Fittingly, this was still a NASA mission; the payload is the CRS-10 Dragon cargo mission to the International Space Station. But the next flight won’t be; the next flight will deliver the EchoStar 23 commercial commsat to geosynchronous transfer orbit.
LC-39A was originally built to support launches of the gigantic Saturn V for the Apollo mission, and so everything is proportionately gigantic on this pad. Falcon 9 is the smallest rocket ever to fly from it, but later it is planned to support the massive Falcon Heavy, a triple-core variant that will be the most powerful rocket in the world when it flies, and that is the real reason for using this pad.
Today’s mission was completely successful, including the first daylight shore landing of a Falcon 9 first stage. That stage landed on the existing SpaceX landing pad at Cape Canaveral. And there’s some great footage. 😉
And here is spectacular drone photography of the landing:
After the shocking loss of the last Falcon 9, the rocket roared well and truly back into business today. They had been slightly delayed by the much needed rains that have come to California, but today the weather was suitable and launch occurred on time and on target, with a successful barge recovery at sea of the first stage – the first from Vandenberg. The Jason-3 launch a year ago was the first attempt to recover a Falcon 9 in the Pacific; it successfully soft-landed, but one of the landing legs failed to lock allowing it to fall over and explode. This one was flawless, and the barge will return to shore in the next couple of days — I believe to San Diego, since that’s where SpaceX recovers their Dragons.
The payload is the first flight of the Iridium NEXT constellation, which uses a brand-new multi-satellite deployment system that appears to have worked flawlessly, deploying all ten spacecraft correctly into their high inclination orbit.