November 15, 2017

During a test at its McGregor, Texas development facility, SpaceX blew up an experimental engine on Saturday. SpaceX says no one was injured in the incident and the damage done to the engine-testing bay won't delay the company's busy launch schedule. USA TODAY
Thursday night's SpaceX Falcon 9 launch from Kennedy Space Center is a mystery mission.
Set to launch from pad 39A during a two-hour window that opens at 8 p.m., the brand new nine-engine rocket will take a payload to low Earth orbit on a mission codenamed "Zuma" for Northrop Grumman. The first stage of the Falcon 9 will then descend for a landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Landing Zone 1, generating a window-rattling sonic boom along the way.
Unlike other mysterious launches, such as ones for the National Reconnaissance Office, a member of the intelligence community and the Department of Defense, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman identified the payload customer only as the "U.S. government."
“The U.S. government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission," said Lon Rains, communications director at Northrop Grumman's Space Systems Division and Space Park Design Center of Excellence in California. "We have procured the Falcon 9 launch service from SpaceX."
"This event represents a cost effective approach to space access for government missions," he said.
Neither SpaceX nor Northrop Grumman would provide additional details.
The fact that the rocket's booster will return for a propulsive landing at Cape Canaveral, however, reiterates the low-orbit insertion of the payload and could also indicate that it's comparatively lighter than previous SpaceX missions. Heavier satellites typically require drone ship landings or expendable first stages due to fuel constraints.
Zuma marks the 17th mission of the year for SpaceX – more than doubling last year's total of eight launches – and, if successful, the 20th landing of a Falcon 9 first stage since 2015.
  • Launch Thursday
  • Rocket: SpaceX Falcon 9
  • Mission: Zuma for Northrop Grumman / U.S. government
  • Launch Time: 8 p.m.
  • Launch Window: 10 p.m.
  • Launch Pad: 39A at Kennedy Space Center
  • Weather: 80 percent “go”
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