SpaceX launches clandestine Zuma satellite – questions over spacecraft’s health

by Chris Gebhardt

SpaceX launched its first mission of 2018, involving the secretive Zuma spacecraft. The launch took place on Sunday and while SpaceX note the performance of the rocket was nominal, there are growing questions over the fate of the spacecraft, with some reports it has failed.

The secrecy surrounding the Zuma launch resulted in the launch remaining secret until 30 days before the opening of its original launch campaign.

The first official note about the mission came from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) launch license citing it as Mission 1390, with the Falcon 9 launching from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center before performing a RTLS (Return To Launch Site) landing at LZ-1 at Cape Canaveral.

As first reported by, 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.

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 launch period for Zuma of 1-30 November 2017.

Zuma on 39A ahead of the switch to SLC-40 – Photo by SpaceX

Once the launch date was known, it is understood by 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 initial wish 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 materialized for SpaceX during 2017.   Zuma was the 47th flight of the Falcon 9 (though technically the Falcon 9’s 48th mission – as the AMOS-6 mission’s conflagration on the pad during static fire resulted in that mission never flying).

It was also Falcon 9’s 1st flight of 2018 – a year that has approximately 30 planned Falcon rocket family missions.

Falcon 9 and Zuma on 39A – Photo by Chris Gebhardt for NSF/L2

Originally targeting launch in mid-November 2017, Zuma had to be delayed due to an issue found with a payload fairing for a future mission. 

“We have decided to stand down and take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” SpaceX said 16 November.  “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.”

That issue has since been cleared, as confirmed by SpaceX during the CRS-13 mission briefings. However, Zuma had to swap pads.

Zuma was slated to be the final Falcon 9 mission from 39A in 2017 – as the pad needed to be turned over for Falcon Heavy’s debut as soon as Zuma was away. With the delay, Zuma moved to a launch from SLC-40 to allow processing for Falcon Heavy’s debut to continue.

Falcon Heavy on 39A during fit checks. Photo by SpaceX

Both missions went into separate – yet still related per available assets in Florida – flows, with Zuma the priority.

With Zuma now launched, SpaceX will be able to start to firm up the major milestone dates for Falcon Heavy, starting with the Static Fire test, which was NET (No Earlier Than) January 6. However, this is now going to be moved into the following week due to the Zuma delay.  The reason for the realignment was apparently – though never confirmed – as related to upper level wind predictions, which were unacceptable for most of the week.

At present, both Falcon Heavy’s Static Fire and launch dates still haven’t been officially listed on the Eastern Range. Following the delays to Zuma, this Static Fire test has now moved into next week, with the launch now looking like the end of the month, according to Elon Musk.

The focus remained on successfully lofting Zuma to her orbit, thus all dates relating to Falcon Heavy have – and remain – subject to change.

With the mission swapping to SLC-40, SpaceX opted to rollout the booster on Tuesday, without the payload, which allowed for a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) test on Wednesday. This move allows for additional mission assurance, not least as SLC-40 is continuing its return to action via what will be just its second launch since being repaired. Zuma’s launch follows the successful CRS-13 launch. Another WDR was conducted on Thursday.

Zuma’s booster had already been fired up at 39A to validate the rocket’s health.

The booster has since undergone a pre-launch flow in the SLC-40 Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) to mate the encapsulated payload ahead of rolling back out to the pad as a full stack for the launch attempt.

For launch, based on the hazard notices for land, air, and sea assets and in the Indian Ocean for second stage reentry and disposal during the initial attempt, Falcon 9 will 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.

Hazard Map based on the delayed November launch

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

In rapid succession, the first stage performed a fast flip-around maneuver, the second stage’s vacuum-optimized Merlin 1D engine ignited, and the first stage re-ignited 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 nullified 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 was clearly visible to observers throughout a good portion of Florida.

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

Once the booster reached ~42 miles (~68 km), three Merlin 1D engines ignited, 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 also helped target the Falcon 9 first stage to a position just offshore of its landing pad at LZ-1.

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

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

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

Booster landing after launching with Zuma. SpaceX webcast screenshot

Based on its anticipated flight path, Florida residents in Brevard county – as well as the two counties to the north (Volusia and Flagler) – anticipated 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. Initial reports on social media confirmed a great viewing experience for the booster as it successfully landed on LZ-1.

No confirmation of a successful launch was noted by SpaceX. However, this in itself was not fully expected due to the nature of the mission.

Due to this lack of confirmation, many rumors began circulating per the success of the mission. They grew during Monday.

SpaceX was then quick to inform the media there was no fault with the Falcon 9, which had performed as planned during its role to loft the spacecraft. This didn’t stop some elements of the mass media from pointing to issues with the Falcon 9, which were dismissed by SpaceX.

This article will be updated when more information is available.

(Lead photo by Mike Deep (

Related Articles