Top secret ‘Zuma’ payload puzzles satellite tv for pc trackers – Spaceflight Now


SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket stands poised for launch at pad 39A in Florida with the Zuma payload. Credit: SpaceX

A prime secret payload developed in secrecy for the U.S. authorities is about to trip into orbit from Florida’s Space Coast aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Thursday.

Known solely by the codename Zuma, the payload is heading for a comparatively low-altitude orbit. The existence of the mission was not revealed till it was disclosed in regulatory filings final month.

A disclosure so near launch is uncommon within the area trade, and little details about the mission has been launched in the previous couple of weeks. Clandestine spacecraft owned by the National Reconnaissance Office — the U.S. authorities’s spy satellite tv for pc company — obtain codenames years earlier than they raise off. They’re additionally listed in public procurement paperwork and launch manifests.

Northrop Grumman acknowledged its position within the Zuma mission in a press release, confirming it organized for the launch with SpaceX on a industrial foundation on the federal government’s behalf.

“Northrop Grumman is proud to be a part of the Zuma launch,” mentioned Lon Rains, communications director for Northrop Grumman’s area division. “This occasion represents a value efficient strategy to area entry for presidency missions.

“The U.S. government badigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission,” Rains mentioned in a written badertion emailed to Spaceflight Now. “We have procured the Falcon 9 launch service from SpaceX.”

Northrop Grumman didn’t say whether or not it constructed the Zuma payload, however the protection contractor mentioned it thought of price and danger in its collection of the Falcon 9.

“As a company, Northrop Grumman realizes that this is monumental responsibility and have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma,” the badertion mentioned.

“The Zuma payload is a restricted payload,” Rains mentioned. “It will be launched into Low Earth Orbit.”

Officials haven’t divulged which U.S. authorities company would be the main person of the payload, or whether or not it’s a army or civilian group. Zuma might be a surveillance mission, a spy satellite tv for pc, an experimental tech demo, or one thing else.

The Falcon 9 rocket stands vertical at pad 39A on Wednesday afternoon. Credit: Stephen Clark/Spaceflight Now

The Falcon 9 rocket has a two-hour launch window to take off Thursday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The alternative opens at eight p.m. EST (0100 GMT Friday).

It would be the 45th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket, and the 17th Falcon 9 flight of the yr, a report within the industrial launch enterprise.

Ground crews raised the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket vertical at launch pad 39A early Wednesday. The mission was purported to blast off Wednesday night time, however SpaceX introduced a 24-hour launch delay to permit engineers to finish extra mission badurance work.

The SpaceX launch workforce will swap on the Falcon 9’s computer systems and confirm their readiness for launch Thursday afternoon, and the countdown’s computerized sequencer will begin at T-minus 70 minutes, adopted by the loading of super-chilled, densified rocket-grade RP-1 kerosene into the two-stage rocket.

Cryogenic liquid oxygen shall be pumped into the rocket starting at T-minus 45 minutes.

In the ultimate 10 minutes of the countdown, the Falcon 9’s Merlin fundamental engines shall be readied for ignition and the rocket shall be switched to inside energy.

The on-board pc will ship the command to ignite the primary stage’s 9 Merlin 1D engines at T-minus three seconds. After throttling as much as full energy, the engines will energy the Falcon 9 off the launch pad with 1.7 million kilos of thrust.

Thursday’s flight will place the Zuma payload into low Earth orbit, in response to Northrop Grumman, however the parameters of the goal orbit haven’t been launched. Most satellites in low Earth orbit fly lower than 1,000 miles above the planet.

A discover warning pilots to keep away from the Falcon 9’s flight path recommend the rocket will head northeast from the Kennedy Space Center.

Another advisory signifies the Falcon 9’s second stage will drop out of orbit after deploying the Zuma payload, heading for a re-entry over the southern Indian Ocean, the place particles might fall into the ocean southeast of Madagascar.

SpaceX’s official patch for the Zuma mission. Credit: SpaceX

Ted Molczan, a revered satellite tv for pc watcher in Canada, badyzed the aviation advisories and predicts the Zuma payload will launch into an orbit with a tilt of roughly 50 levels to the equator, however there’s some uncertainty within the estimate.

A coordinated community of novice satellite tv for pc observers speaking in a web-based discussion board will try and find the Zuma payload after its launch, and an estimate of its anticipated orbit will badist inform the trackers the place to look.

The U.S. army publishes data on the orbits of most satellites to keep away from spacecraft collisions, nevertheless it withholds knowledge on the federal government’s most secretive missions.

“There are many possible orbits, so we can only try to be aware of what could happen, and plan the search accordingly,” Molczan instructed Spaceflight Now.

One idea proposed by Macro Langbroek, an skilled tracker of satellite tv for pc actions who lives within the Netherlands, suggests the Zuma payload might be badociated to a categorised National Reconnaissance Office satellite tv for pc launched on a Falcon 9 rocket in May.

The secretive NRO spacecraft, designated USA-276, flies in an orbit inclined 50 levels to the equator, comparable or similar to the observe Zuma is anticipated to take.

What’s extra, the USA-276 satellite tv for pc will fly over Central Florida round eight:08 p.m. EST Thursday (0108 GMT Friday), eight minutes after the opening of the Falcon 9’s launch window.

A launch within the first a part of Thursday’s launch window would place Zuma very near USA-276.

“I readily admit, this all to a high degree remains speculation and wishful thinking, of course,” Langbroek wrote on the SeeSat-L discussion board. “We’ll see what happens. But I found it curious enough to draw attention to it.”

USA-276 was the topic of its personal pre-launch hypothesis as a result of it didn’t go into an orbit utilized by every other NRO missions. It was additionally the primary Falcon 9 launch devoted to the U.S. authorities’s intelligence neighborhood.

Ground-based observers utilizing the SeeSat-L discussion board noticed the USA-276 satellite tv for pc round three weeks after its May 1 launch from the Kennedy Space Center. They calculated it was in an orbit about 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth that oscillates between 50 levels north and south latitude on every lap across the planet.

An NRO spokesperson mentioned the USA-276 satellite tv for pc was constructed by Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., however officers declined to explain its function.

USA-276 made a mysterious flyby as shut as four miles (6 kilometers) International Space Station in early June — a month after its launch — however Langbroek and Molczan should not positive whether or not the unusually shut encounter was intentional.

Ball Aerospace makes a speciality of constructing small and medium-sized satellites. Most of Ball’s spacecraft weighed lower than 6,000 kilos (about 2,700 kilograms) at launch, and that’s possible an higher certain on USA-276’s mbad.

The Zuma payload flying on Thursday’s Falcon 9 launch can also be believed to be comparatively gentle.

The Falcon 9’s first stage will hearth its fundamental engines for round 2 minutes, 16 seconds, on Thursday’s flight, then give option to the higher stage’s single engine to proceed the climb into orbit.

That is the shortest first stage firing on any Falcon 9 launch thus far, one second shy of the booster’s burn time through the launch of USA-276 in May.

SpaceX engineers can regulate the size of the primary stage burn based mostly on every mission’s necessities. An extended burn usually means the satellite tv for pc is heavier and going into the next orbit, and a shorter firing might imply the launch profile is much less demanding, suggesting a lighter payload and a decrease orbit.

The booster will try and return to land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, a maneuver that may solely be completed on missions heading for low orbits as a result of it requires ample leftover gas.

A subset of the primary stage’s 9 Merlin engines will hearth two occasions to information the booster again towards land as soon as it detaches from the Falcon 9 second stage excessive above the Atlantic Ocean. The first stage’s middle engine will ignite once more simply earlier than landing, and 4 touchdown legs will open on the base of the rocket as descends to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral.

Landing is scheduled lower than eight minutes after liftoff, in response to a timeline supplied by SpaceX.

The firm’s launch webcast is anticipated to finish protection of the second stage’s engine burn shortly after it ignites, complying with the desires of Zuma’s proprietor. Live video will deal with the primary stage’s descent again to Earth.

SpaceX will attempt to land a rocket at Landing Zone 1 for the eighth time. Falcon 9 boosters have landed intact there or on offshore vessels 19 occasions, advancing SpaceX’s efforts to recuperate and reuse rockets.

Three Falcon 9 missions have used previously-flown boosters thus far. The first stage slated to get Zuma off the bottom will fly for the primary time.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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