SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched a top secret U.S. government payload into orbit, while returning its first-stage booster to the ground for reuse.
The Falcon lifted off at 8 p.m. ET Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As the first-stage of the Falcon returned to Earth for an upright landing, the upper stage lofted the mysterious Zuma, presumed to be a spy satellite or military communications satellite, into an undisclosed orbit.
The launch was originally scheduled for Thursday, but was pushed ahead until Sunday without explanation, according to WFTV.com in Orlando.
"... the main goal of tonight's flight was getting Zuma aloft, so the spacecraft can start going about its business. Just what that business may be is unclear; little has been revealed about the payload.
We do know that aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman procured Zuma's launch atop a Falcon 9 for the U.S. government — but we don't know which agency will operate the satellite, or if its mission is civilian or military."
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The Associated Press adds: "SpaceX ended launch commentary five minutes into the flight, due to the classified nature of the U.S. satellite."
The pinpoint landing of Falcon's booster marks the 21st time that SpaceX has successfully completed the pioneering maneuver, which recovers for reuse a costly part of the rocket that traditionally is expended during launch.
SpaceX is the commercial launch service formed by Elon Musk, who is also CEO of Tesla. He has outlined plans for his company to lead an eventual mission to Mars.
All eyes will turn to the first launch, in late January, of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, which would become the most powerful operational rocket in the world, carrying twice as much as its nearest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy. Only the Saturn V, used to send astronauts to the moon, had more lift capability, and it has not flown since 1973.
Musk has said it is possible that the Falcon Heavy's first launch could end with the rocket blowing up, so he's placing his personal property — his Tesla Roadster – in the nosecone as payload.
"In classic Elon fashion, he's downplaying expectations that it might blow up. And it certainly might. This is a brand new vehicle with 27 engines having to work in sync," said Dale Ketcham, Space Florida's chief of strategic alliances, according to WFTV.