SpaceX adds mystery “Zuma” mission, Iridium-4 aims for Vandenberg landing

by Chris Gebhardt

In what has already been a busy year for SpaceX, the commercial launch provider is adding one more mission to its jammed-packed end-of-year schedule.  A mysterious mission codenamed “Zuma” will launch No Earlier Than 10 November 2017 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.  Meanwhile, CRS-13 is slipping at least one week per the Station’s schedule, and the Iridium NEXT-4 mission from Vandenberg has received permission to debut RTLS landing of the Falcon 9 booster back at SLC-4W.

SpaceX adds mystery “Zuma” mission:

It’s not often that one can point to a last-minute (from the public side) addition of a mission to a launch manifest – let alone one that manages to stay secret until 30 days before the opening of its launch campaign.

But that is the case for a mystery Falcon 9 mission that is now set to launch between Koreasat-5A and CRS-13/Dragon.

The mystery mission, codename Zuma, is known on its FCC launch license as Mission 1390 and will see a Falcon 9 rocket launch from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center before performing a RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing at LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral.

The mission is a new addition to SpaceX’s manifest and now appears to be the last flight off Pad 39A before the pad undergoes final configurations for the debut of the Falcon Heavy, which is still slated for NET (No Earlier Than) December 2017.

With such secrecy, the customer candidate for Zuma would normally be the U.S. government/military (i.e.: the National Reconnaissance Office or the Air Force); however, there is industry speculation claiming this is a “black commercial” mission.

Nonetheless, Zuma represents a likely rapid launch response from SpaceX for the satellite’s operator.

(UPDATE: has confirmed that Northrop Grumman is the payload provider for Zuma through a commercial launch contract with SpaceX for a LEO satellite with a mission type labeled as “government” and a needed launch date range of 1-30 November 2017.)

While nothing is known of the payload, what is known is that Zuma will use Falcon 9 core B1043 – a brand new core that was originally (as understood by intended for the CRS-13/Dragon mission.

However, a brand-new booster might not be needed for CRS-13.  With Falcon 9 first stage reuse proving highly successful in its first two flights by August, NASA – as confirmed in a press conference following the CRS-12 launch – was actively investigating and reviewing data toward approving a future CRS launch on a flight-proven Falcon 9.

According to information recently obtained by and available on L2, NASA has completed a technical review for reuse with successful results limited to the second flight of a booster that flew a LEO mission.

This means that from NASA’s technical review standpoint, all engineering considerations for Falcon 9 reuse meet the agency’s strict safety standards and that nothing from a technical/engineering standpoint would stop a future CRS mission from launching on a once-flown Falcon 9 booster that lofted a payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The information adds that approvals are in management review but may not occur in time for SpX-13.

However, CRS-13 is understood to be slipping about one week from its NET 28 November date into early December per the International Space Station’s schedule – affording additional time for NASA management to approve CRS-13’s launch on a flight-proven Falcon 9.

A public decision on CRS-13’s booster is expected from NASA by early November.

SpaceX end-of-year manifest realignment:

Under the recently realigned launch manifest, Koreasat-5A (on a brand new Falcon 9) is targeted to leave LC-39A NET 30 October in a 2hr 24 minute launch window that extends from 15:34 to 17:58 EDT (19:34-21:58 GMT).

The Koreasat-5A mission’s booster will then attempt landing on the ASDS (Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship) Of Course I Still Love You in the Atlantic Ocean – the last anticipated drone ship/ocean landing of Falcon 9 for the year.

Koreasat-5A will then be followed off Pad-A by the Zuma Falcon 9 mission – slated for NET 10 November with a RTLS landing back to the Cape.

At this point, launch operations will shift to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the newly-rebuilt SLC-40.

According to L2 processing information, SLC-40 will be “flight ready” by the end of November.  This corresponds to the CRS-13/Dragon resupply mission to the International Space Station, still set for an officially announced launch date of NET 28 November.

However, CRS-13 – according to L2 information – is slipping at least one week to NET early December due to ISS scheduling considerations, something that adds additional margin for SLC-40’s reactivation.

Per the launch license, CRS-13/Dragon will depart from SLC-40 and its first stage booster will then perform a RTLS landing back at LZ-1.

After this, the Iridium NEXT-4 mission will follow from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

This mission is – as of writing – NET late-November; however, Iridium CEO Matt Desch was clear to all on-site press at the Iridium NEXT-3 launch last week that Iridium NEXT-4 will likely be NET early December 2017.

This is – in part – to deconflict the launch (specifically the final elements of launch processing for the Iridium team) with the Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S. and to also work on a few remaining points with SpaceX.

Intriguingly, there are some indications that Iridium NEXT-4 could make use of a flight-proven Falcon 9 – reusing the booster (B1036) that launched the Iridium-2 mission in June of this year.

While not confirmed as of writing, if Iridium NEXT-4 does reuse the Iridium-2 booster, the mission would be the first flight-proven Falcon 9 from Vandenberg and the 5th flight-proven mission of the year (if CRS-13 does, indeed, use a flight-proven core).

But perhaps most excitingly for Vandenberg is that Iridium NEXT-4, according to sources, will be the first mission to debut RTLS landing of the Falcon 9 at Vandenberg.

For a Vandenberg RTLS landing, the Falcon 9 will launch from SLC-4E and return to SLC-4W, which is just 1,425 ft (434.3 m) away – measured from center of launch mount to center of landing pad.

The commencement of Vandenberg RTLS landings has been a long time coming, with environmental studies finally clearing the way last year on 7 October 2016.

Since then, SpaceX has been hard at work building the landing pad and assembling/testing all of the systems needed to safely track and communicate with a returning Falcon 9 booster to SLC-4W and all the equipment needed to safe, process, and house RTLS boosters post-landing.

All of these endeavours are now either complete or on track to be completed in time for Iridium NEXT-4.

An early December launch of Iridium NEXT-4 would result in a launch at approximately 18:00 PST – about 1hr after local sunset and 20mins before complete darkness at the launch site.

Following Iridium NEXT-4, one final mission (from the Cape) of Falcon 9 is still labeled as “Q4 2017”.  That satellite is Hispasat 1F (30W-6).

Hispasat 1F is a heavy payload going to GTO (Geostationary Transfer Orbit) and will likely see Falcon 9 fly in her expendable configuration – though Block 4 upgrades may permit a hot entry ASDS attempted landing – sometime in December.

The satellite currently does not have a firm target launch date, but the packed Cape schedule from 30 October – 28 November (with two U.S. Federal holidays therein) almost certainly precludes a launch until NET December from SLC-40.

At present, the GovSat-1/SES-16, Iridium NEXT-5, and PAZ missions (which until recently were penciled in for flights late this year) have all officially slipped into 2018.

If Koreasat-5A, the Zuma mission, CRS-13, Iridium NEXT-4, and Hispasat 1F (30W-6) all fly before the end of the year, SpaceX will achieve a total of 20 Falcon 9 flights in 2017 – with five of those missions (with CRS-13 and Iridium NEXT-4 reusing core stages) being flight-proven Falcon 9s.

If that occurs, a full 25% of SpaceX’s flights in 2017 will have been on flight-proven boosters.

Falcon Heavy:

With the end-of-year manifest taking shape, one final – and big – question for SpaceX’s manifest for 2017 remains: Falcon Heavy.

The addition of the Zuma mission launching from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center would seemingly throw a wrench into SpaceX’s plans to take Pad-A offline in order to perform final configurations of the pad and the TEL (Transporter/Erector/Launcher) for Falcon Heavy.

In the first part of this year, it was known publicly that Pad-A would require approximately 60 days of down time to properly configure it for Falcon Heavy.

However, by late summer, SpaceX had utilized some of the down time provided between missions and during the range stand down in July to perform some of this work and had cut the total number of days needed to finalize Pad-A for Falcon Heavy from 60 down to 45.

Since July, SpaceX has continued that trend, working around launches off 39A and utilizing downtime to do what they can to get Pad-A ready for Falcon Heavy between Falcon 9 missions.  

Most recently, some of the launch mounts/hold-down points for the side boosters of Falcon Heavy were installed on the TEL between the OTV-5 and SES-11/Echostar-105 launch campaigns.

While it’s not entirely clear how much additional time SpaceX requires at present to finalize Pad-A, a great deal of work has already taken place to streamline the configuration efforts.

Nonetheless, while it is possible Falcon Heavy’s debut could slip into 2018, there is reason and evidence to state that a December 2017 maiden voyage is still possible and likely.

If Falcon Heavy does launch this year (and the five remaining Falcon 9 missions occur as understood), 23 Falcon 9 cores will launch in 2017, seven of those being flight-proven cores.

That would make flight-proven cores responsible for 30% of the total number of Falcon 9 core flights in 2017.

(Images: SpaceX, Thales Alenia, Iridium Communications, Google Maps, SSL, and Philip Sloss, Chris Gebhardt & Jay DeShelter for, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (Falcon Heavy to Dragon to Starliner, MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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