SpaceX launches mysterious Zuma satellite for US government

8 Jan 2018

Launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in 2014. Image: SpaceX

What is aboard the Zuma satellite? SpaceX’s latest US government payload is shrouded in mystery.

When it comes to NASA spacecraft launches, transparency is key, with nearly all aspects of a mission made available to the public. This is not the case when it comes to other US government spacecraft.

According to AFP (via, SpaceX has just launched a payload, codenamed Zuma, into orbit aboard one of its Falcon 9 reusable rockets. However, almost nothing else is known about what’s on board as neither SpaceX nor the US government have responded to queries.

One of the US’s biggest aerospace and defence contractors, Northrop Grumman, has procured the launch of Zuma on a SpaceX craft, but it is unclear if it is for civilian or military purposes.

While we know it will enter low-Earth orbit, this does little to tell of its mission.

Another noticeable addition to the intrigue is that while SpaceX typically broadcasts its launches via webcam, this launch did not receive the full treatment – the Zuma spacecraft was not shown when it separated from the first stage of the rocket.

Not the first mysterious vehicle

This launch marks the 21st successful mission for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, and it is the ninth occasion where it has landed at its Landing Zone 1 site at Cape Canaveral.

The remaining 12 landings have occurred at SpaceX’s two “autonomous spaceport droneships”, named Just Read the Instructions and Of Course I Still Love You, in the Atlantic Ocean.

Given the secrecy of the Zuma payload, it can be assumed that it is deemed of significant importance to the US’s national security.

This is not the first spacecraft launched by SpaceX under a mysterious shroud. In September of last year, SpaceX helped to launch X-37B into orbit, otherwise known as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV).

Similar in concept to the retired space shuttles that took off like a rocket and landed on an aircraft runway, the OTV is an uncrewed vehicle, with the US Air Force only revealing that it is a testbed for future spacecraft, and not a new orbital space weapon.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic