Update: SpaceX has cancelled this launch. The company “stood down” in order to examine data it obtained during recent tests of the Falcon 9 rocket’s fairing, the aerodynamic, carbon fiber shell that protects the satellite during launch. Presumably, this data suggested potential problems. “We will take the time we need to complete the data review and will then confirm a new launch date,” a company spokesperson said.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch another satellite into orbit in Florida. This one is special—mostly because we don’t know anything about it. Meet Zuma, the US government’s mystery satellite and the latest player in a global race to protect national security in space.
The Zuma mission surprised space watchers because regulatory filings for the flight came just a month before the expected launch date, quick action in a business used to months or years of pre-flight preparation.
You can watch the launch and attempted landing of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster rocket—starting just before 8pm local time from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral—on the company’s live webcast. There probably won’t be many shots of the mystery satellite.
Here’s what we know: the satellite is operated by the US government, not the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates most spy satellites but says Zuma isn’t its baby. The launch was arranged by Northrup Grumman, a major military space contractor, but it’s not clear if Northrup actually built the satellite or if it is merely a middleman.
Zuma is a fairly small satellite, and it’s going to a fairly low orbit, since SpaceX plans to fly its rocket booster to land at Cape Canaveral, rather than on a sea-going landing platform.
The most interesting speculation about the purpose of the mission comes from amateur satellite trackers who have dug into regulatory filings to understand where the satellite is going. One observer in the Netherlands, Marco Langbroek, has speculated that this spacecraft might be trying to rendezvous with another secret satellite launched by SpaceX last spring that is flying on a very similar orbit. That secret satellite will be passing over Cape Canaveral just a few minutes after tonight’s launch.
Last year, Russia tested a satellite with the ability to maneuver in orbit and rendezvous with other spacecraft, raising questions about whether it was developing anti-satellite weapons or simply advanced space technology. The US Air Force has a spacecraft called the X-37B that also performs mysterious work in orbit, and was recently launched by SpaceX.
Of course, Zuma might not be a spacecraft focused on other spacecraft. It could be looking down to snoop on adversaries. With the maturation of North Korea’s ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, the US government is looking to put more money behind technology like satellite radar that can spot, and potentially target, nuclear missiles before they launch or even when they are in flight.
Governments are increasingly interested in—and concerned by—the disruptive possibilities of space technology. In the US, companies like Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are working to win the lucrative business of national security space launch, worth billions of dollars, by undercutting the current incumbent, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin called United Launch Alliance.
SpaceX, for now, is the main challenger for ULA. This will be the 45th flight of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket, and its 17th this year—a new launch record for a private rocket company.