From The Editors Science

SpaceX Launches Top Secret Government Satellite “Zuma” Into Orbit

After a record 18 launches last year, SpaceX made its first successful spaceflight of 2018 Sunday night from its SLC-40 launch facility at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in Florida, instead of its other facility at the Kennedy Space Center, which is being prepared for the company’s first Falcon Heavy launch sometime later this month.

The Falcon 9 lifted off with its secret cargo “Zuma,” successfully launching the U.S. Government satellite/spacecraft into low orbit on a classified mission. SpaceX has carried sensitive payloads for Uncle Sam in the past as well, including the National Reconnaissance Office in May 2017 and the U.S. Air Force spacecraft X-37B later in the year.

Also, Elon Musk’s company made yet another picture-perfect recovery of the Falcon 9 booster as it returned to landing pad LZ-1 after putting Zuma into its intended orbit. It was the 21st successful recovery of the first-stage and the ninth on LZ-1, the remaining 12 having touched down on “autonomous spaceport droneships” in the ocean.

SpaceX is the proud owner of two of these unmanned ocean crafts named “Of Course I Still Love You” and “Just Read the Instructions.”

These repossessions of the re-usable first-stage boosters are part of the company’s cost-cutting efforts. So far, SpaceX has re-flown five of the recovered Falcon 9 rockets as well as two unmanned Dragon capsules on resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The rocket used for Sunday night’s Zuma mission, by the way, was a brand new Falcon 9.

Watch the Zuma launch here.

With the Zuma launch out of the way, SpaceX can now focus on the launch one of the most powerful rockets in recent history, the Falcon Heavy, planned for later this month.

Capable of generating three times the thrust of a Falcon 9, made possible by 27 Merlin engines – nine to each core – the 229-foot-tall science and technology marvel will be able to carry payloads of up to 63,800 kg into low orbit.

It is all set to become the most powerful in-service rocket, bypassing Europe’s Ariane 5 heavy-lift launcher, which, for now, is the world’s most powerful launch vehicle with a lift-off thrust of 2.9 million pounds from its core engine and two boosters.

However, maximum payload capability can only be achieved if the company decides not to recover the first-stage boosters, which, basically, eats up the rocket’s propellant reserves, thereby reducing its lifting capacity.

With SpaceX already decided on recovering all three first-stage boosters, needless to say, Falcon Heavy will not be carrying the maximum payload when it lifts off later this month.

Even when the boosters are not recovered, maximum payload launch into low Earth orbit will require a velocity boost from Earth’s rotation. For that to happen, the rocket will have to be launched to the east from Florida’s Space Coast.

“When Falcon Heavy lifts off in 2018, it will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. With the ability to lift into orbit over 54 metric tons (119,000 lb)—a mass equivalent to a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage, and fuel—Falcon Heavy can lift more than twice the payload of the next closest operational vehicle, the Delta IV Heavy at one-third the cost,” claims SpaceX on its website.

Falcon Heavy’s two side-boosters, recovered and refurbished from 2016’s Falcon 9 missions, will separate and return to land at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in quick succession, if not simultaneously, while the new center core will detach and land on SpaceX’s droneship in the Atlantic.

If Elon Musk has not been pulling our legs, we will get to see an “unusual” payload this time around – a red Tesla Roadster.

In a December 22 Instagram post, Musk had uploaded the image of the red car alongside a message captioned “A Red Car for the Red Planet.”

This is what the message said:

“Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring. Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.

The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.”

The mighty Merlins of the Falcon Heavy are expected to give the Roadster enough thrust for it to beat Earth’s gravity, allowing it to go into a heliocentric orbit, about the same distance as between Mars and the sun.

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