SpaceX stands down Falcon launch of clandestine Zuma satellite

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Just one month after the mission became public – and just seven months after its needed launch date was communicated to SpaceX – the commercial space juggernaut will next send the secretive Zuma payload to Low Earth Orbit.  However, the launch of the Falcon 9 with Zuma – set for within a two hour window – is awaiting a new launch date, following the standdown to evaluate potential commonality with an issue found on a different mission’s fairing.

Zuma – secret payload highlights SpaceX’s flexibility to launch needs:

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 the mystery Falcon 9 mission that is tasked with lifting the mysterious Zuma payload to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Known on its FCC (Federal Communications Commission) launch license as Mission 1390, the Falcon 9 will 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 first public knowledge of Zuma came in mid-October 2017 when the launch license for the mission was published by the FCC.

As first reported by NASASpaceflight.com, Zuma is a commercially contracted, built, and operated clandestine spacecraft by Northrop Grumman via a contract award from the U.S. government.

Northrop Grumman, as part of their contract to build and operate Zuma, was also tasked with selecting and managing the launch contract for the satellite.

According to source documentation, Zuma’s launch contract – which did not specify a launch date – was established with SpaceX in 2015.

Recently, Northrop Grumman’s Communications Director, Lon Rains, said in a statement that “This event represents a cost effective approach to space access for government missions.  As a company, Northrop Grumman realizes that this is a monumental responsibility and has taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenarios for Zuma.”

While the precise cost of the launch contract has not been divulged, it is known that the Zuma payload was not processed in any of SpaceX’s payload processing facilities.

Because of that, as well as the contract’s initiation in 2015, it is likely that this mission falls within the $60 million (USD) range for a brand new Falcon 9, with very few – if any – of SpaceX’s add-on options needed for payload processing.

Given that United Launch Alliance’s base Atlas V 401 rocket carries at starting price tag of $109 million (USD), it stands to reason that selection of the Falcon 9 was by far the cheapest and most launch-date reactive choice for Zuma.

While the contract was signed in 2015, a launch date was not determined until late-April 2017 when the government customer notified Northrop Grumman of the mandatory launch period for Zuma of 1-30 November 2017.

Once the launch date was known, it is understood by NASASpaceflight.com that SpaceX assigned Falcon 9 first stage B1043 to Zuma – a core that was originally supposed to launch the CRS-13/Dragon mission for NASA to the International Space Station.

Due to the U.S. government’s need to launch Zuma before 30 November, SpaceX’s manifest was rearranged to meet the customer’s short-notice launch need – representing a rapid launch response capability for SpaceX that has been greatly aided by the company’s immensely successful reuse of the Falcon 9 first stage booster.

This reuse ability has allowed SpaceX to optimize its launch manifest and has allowed its customers greater flexibility and launch date assurance than would otherwise have been available if the company only relied on brand new Falcon 9s for every flight.

The goal of reusability has been a long-standing one for SpaceX, and is one the company appears to be on track to meet.

Likewise, a rapid launch cadence has also been a goal that has materialized for SpaceX this year.

Overall, the Zuma mission will mark the 45th flight of the Falcon 9 (though technically it will be Falcon 9’s 46th mission – as the AMOS-6 mission’s conflagration on the pad during static fire resulted in that mission never flying).

Moreso, this will be Falcon 9’s 17th flight of 2017 and its 13th from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center.

Zuma is also slated to be the final Falcon 9 mission from 39A this year – as the pad will be turned over for Falcon Heavy’s debut as soon as Zuma is away.

Additionally, with a RTLS landing of the first stage at LZ-1 planned, Zuma will hopefully mark the 20th successful landing and recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage.

To date, all RTLS landings have been successful, with the only unsuccessful landings occurring on the ASDS drones ships Of Course I Still Love You or Just Read The Instructions.

The last unsuccessful landing was 17 months ago during first stage landing on Of Course I Still Love You following the Eutelsat 117 West B & ABS-2A launch on 15 June 2016.

Since then, 15 straight landing attempts have been successful.

Launch profile:

Falcon 9’s launch window for Zuma was to open at 20:00 EST (8pm EST) on 16 November – 01:00 UTC on 17 November. However, SpaceX opted to slip the launch to at least Friday due to a potential issue with another mission’s fairing. SpaceX will be checking for the potential of commonality based on the findings.

“We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” SpaceX said on Thursday. “Though we have preserved the range opportunity for tomorrow, we will take the time we need to complete the data review and will then confirm a new launch date.”

The Friday opportunity wasn’t taken, meaning a new launch date remains pending.

After liftoff, the Falcon 9 will – based on the hazard notices for land, air, and sea assets near the Kennedy Space Center for launch and in the Indian Ocean for second stage reentry and disposal – perform a roll and pitch maneuver to align itself for orbit insertion of Zuma into an approximate 51 degree inclination orbit.

For reference, the International Space Station orbits in a 51.6 degree inclination.

Interestingly, though likely entirely coincidental, the end of the launch window (22:00 EST), falls within the in-plane launch time from LC-39A to the ISS – which means the ISS will likely receive a flyby (at some distance) of Zuma a few days after the satellite’s launch.

For Zuma’s launch, the Falcon 9 will move on a north-easterly trajectory out of Kennedy.  After 2 mins 16 secs of flight, the first stage’s 9 Merlin 1D engines will shut down and the stage will separate at an altitude of ~43.5 miles (~70 km) at Mission Elapsed Time 2 mins 19 secs.

In rapid succession, the first stage will perform a fast flip-around maneuver, the second stage’s vacuum-optimized Merlin 1D engine will ignite, and the first stage will re-ignite three of its Merlin 1D engines and begin thrusting itself back to the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in a maneuver known as the Boostback Burn.

The Boostback Burn will nullify the Falcon 9 booster’s 3,700 mph forward velocity before imparting just enough force on just the right trajectory to begin the booster’s return trip to its launch site.

Given the night time launch, the Boostback Burn should – pending cloud cover – be clearly visible to observers throughout a good portion of Florida.

As the second stage continues to orbit, the first stage will deploy its grid fins as it continues to climb higher in altitude, peaking at ~103 miles (~166 km) before beginning its descent.

Once the booster reaches ~42 miles (~68 km), three Merlin 1D engines will ignite, performing the Entry Burn – designed to protect the booster’s base and engines from the heat of reentry as well as slow the booster down from ~3,100 mph to ~1,700 mph.

The Entry Burn will also help target the Falcon 9 first stage to a position just offshore of its landing pad at LZ-1.

The stage will then continue downward – with guidance and orientation provided mainly by its grid fins – until it reaches an altitude of 5km.

At this point, the center Merlin 1D engine will ignite again for the landing burn – which will slow the Falcon 9 down from ~720 mph to 0 mph right at landing.

The Landing Burn – once underway – will also help steer the booster toward its precise landing point on the center of the main landing pad at LZ-1.

Based on its anticipated flight path, Florida residents in Brevard county – as well as the two counties to the north (Volusia and Flagler) – should anticipate a good chance of hearing and feeling the triple sonic booms of the Falcon 9 first stage booster as it flies itself back to the Cape for landing and recovery.

(Images: SpaceX and Chris Gebhardt for NASASpaceflight.com)

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