Falcon 9 Zuma
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, Jan. 7, carrying the classified Zuma spacecraft for Northrop Grumman. Credit: SpaceX webcast

WASHINGTON — SpaceX successfully launched a classified payload on a Falcon 9 Jan. 7, starting what is planned to be the busiest year yet for the launch provider.

The Falcon 9 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, carrying a classified payload known only as “Zuma.” The rocket’s first stage landed at nearby Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral eight minutes after liftoff. SpaceX ended its coverage of the launch at that point, without confirming that the payload reached orbit.

Little is known about the Zuma payload. The launch was procured by Northrop Grumman, who manufactured the spacecraft, and no U.S. government agency has claimed the payload. Airspace notices for the launch suggest the payload will be going into an orbit of an inclination of about 50 degrees, similar to International Space Station missions as well as USA 276, a National Reconnaissance Office satellite launched on a Falcon 9 in May 2017.

The launch was originally scheduled for mid-November from nearby Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. However, SpaceX postponed the launch in order to “take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer,” the company said at the time. The company did not disclose details about the problem, and it did not prevent SpaceX from carrying out a Dec. 22 launch of 10 Iridium satellites, the one Falcon 9 mission since then that also used a payload fairing.

The launch is the first in what SpaceX expects to be its busiest year to date. The company launched 18 Falcon 9 rockets, all successfully, in 2017, and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a November interview that she expected the company to increase its launch rate by about 50 percent in 2018.

SpaceX’s next major event will be the first launch of its long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in an Instagram post Jan. 4 that the company planned to perform a static-fire test of the Falcon Heavy at LC-39A this week, with a launch attempt to follow at the end of January. The rocket, on its inaugural flight, is carrying only a demonstration payload. That payload will include Musk’s own Tesla Roadster sports car, which SpaceX intends to inject into a heliocentric orbit that will take it past Mars.

SpaceX will also introduce in 2018 the Block 5 upgrade to the Falcon 9 rocket. The vehicle’s upgrades incorporates lessons learned from the company’s efforts to land and reuse the Falcon 9’s first stage, and the Block 5 version is intended to allow the first stage to be reused 10 or more times.

SpaceX is also scheduled to fly its Crew Dragon vehicle on test flights in advance of carrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. An uncrewed test flight is scheduled for April, according to schedules published by NASA last fall, followed by a crewed test flight carrying two NASA astronauts in August. Those dates may slip, though, and a NASA release Jan. 4 about the commercial crew program listed dates for the two missions of only the second and third quarter of 2018, respectively.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...