Technology pioneer Elon Musk’s aerospace firm, SpaceX, is preparing to launch a secretive spacecraft for an unnamed branch of the US government this week after postponing the event in November.
Codenamed Zuma, the launch was initially scheduled for November from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Merritt Island, Florida. SpaceX delayed sending Zuma into space after concerns emerged about the nose cone protecting the payload from dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating on its way out of the atmosphere.
Multiple media outlets reported that Zuma would take off on Thursday, January 4, but SpaceX pushed the event date back again to Friday at the earliest, the California-based company announced on Twitter.
SpaceX is “targeting [a] January 5 launch of Zuma,” the company said Wednesday.
The classified government satellite may have been built by defense giant Northrop Grumman, the only company besides SpaceX known to be involved with the project. “The US government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission,” the Virginia-based aerospace and defense firm said in November.
“Working closely with our customers and suppliers, these [aerospace] systems and technologies are used for a wide range of missions from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; protected communications; battle management; strike operations; electronic warfare and missile defense to Earth observation, space science and space exploration,” according to a company description of Northrop’s aerospace products.
Little else is known about the Zuma project, including under which government agency umbrella the project falls. The National Reconnaissance Office seems to be a likely candidate since it is a US government agency tasked with developing and maintaining spy satellites, but the NRO denied involvement when pressed on the Zuma launch last October.
SpaceX launched a satellite for the NRO last May and the agency did not shy away from claiming ownership of the payload. Nevertheless, “one source told Ars Technica that SpaceX is launching the payload for the National Reconnaissance Office,” a January 2 report in the technology publication asserted.
The Zuma launch will clear the way for SpaceX to test Falcon Heavy, a rocket “with more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — equal to approximately eighteen 747 aircraft at full power,” according to the private space firm.