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SpaceX kicks off busy 2018 with launch of mysterious payload

Last Updated Jan 7, 2018 9:21 PM EST

SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a mysterious government satellite known as "Zuma" Sunday, lighting up the night sky as the booster climbed toward space and then lighting it up again a few moments later as its reusable first stage descended on a jet of flame to a pinpoint touchdown.

Running a month and a half late because of payload fairing issues and subsequent rescheduling, the booster's nine first-stage engines ignited with a rush of flame at 8 p.m. EST (GMT-5). After a final round of computer checks, the 129-foot-tall rocket was released from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

It was the first of up to 30 or so SpaceX flights planned for 2018 following a record 18-launch year in 2017.

Climbing away atop 1.7 million pounds of thrust and a brilliant jet of exhaust, the Falcon 9 put on a spectacular show for area residents and tourists, visible for miles around as it arced away to the northeast and faded from view over the Atlantic Ocean.

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A look at Sunday night's SpaceX launch in Florida.

Spaceflight Now

As usual with classified missions, no details were revealed about the satellite's intended orbit or purpose. But SpaceX did provide coverage of the early moments of the flight, including the successful return to Earth of the Falcon 9's first stage about eight minutes after liftoff.

Putting on an increasingly familiar spectacle, the booster flipped around moments after separating from the Falcon 9's second stage, fired up three of its Merlin 1D engines to kill off forward velocity and started back toward the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

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Another view of the Falcon 9 during first stage flight.

SpaceX

The engines ignited again three-and-a-half minutes later to slow down even more before descent into the thick lower atmosphere, using titanium "grid fins" at the top of the booster to maintain the proper orientation.

Then, dropping tail first toward the Air Force station, a single engine ignited, four landing legs unfolded and the stage settled to an on-target touchdown near the center of Landing Zone 1 at the Air Force station. It was the company's 21st successful booster recovery in 26 attempts, its ninth at LZ-1.

The Falcon 9's second stage presumably was still firing at that point, but no details were provided and it's not known when the Zuma satellite was released to fly on its own.

Built by Northrop Grumman for an unidentified government agency, Zuma popped up on SpaceX's launch schedule last October, two weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration received an application for launch. Satellite launches are typically scheduled many months in advance and the agencies responsible for classified payloads are usually identified.

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A camera mounted on the Falcon 9's first stage captures the final moments of a dramatic descent to a pinpoint landing at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. It was the company's 21st successful booster recovery, it's ninth at the Air Force station.

SpaceX

But Zuma's owner, its purpose and capabilities remain a mystery. Spaceflight Now reported earlier that the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates numerous spy satellites, is not involved with the mission.

The only clue came with the Falcon 9's first stage landing. Satellites bound for the high orbits used by communications stations and electronic eavesdropping satellites typically would not leave a Falcon 9 with enough left-over propellant to attempt a return to Florida.

A world-wide network of amateur satellite trackers will be on the lookout in the coming days and weeks in hopes of detecting the spacecraft and determining the details of its orbit.

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The Falcon Heavy, scheduled for its maiden flight late this month, will generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust at launch with 27 Merlin 1D engines firing in concert.

SpaceX

In any case, with Zuma safely way, SpaceX engineers will turn their attention to a flurry of upcoming flights, including the maiden launch of the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket since NASA's Saturn 5 and the space shuttle.

The first Falcon Heavy, made up of three Falcon 9 core stages and a single upper stage, will be erected atop historic pad 39A at the nearby Kennedy Space Center next week for a main engine test firing. All 27 engines will be ignited for several seconds to make sure the propulsion system is ready for flight.

The Heavy's long-awaited launch is expected before the end of the month. In roughly that same period, SpaceX plans to launch an SES-Luxembourg military communications satellite and a Spanish Earth-observation station, both from pad 40.

  • William Harwood

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."