The Mysterious Zuma Mission, SpaceX’s First Launch of 2018, Is Tonight

January 7, 2018, 10:00 PM UTC

SpaceX’s first launch of 2018, the Zuma mission — which is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 7 — will mark a rather mysterious start to what could be a high-flying year for the space company.

As usual, SpaceX will livestream the launch on its website. The launch window opens at 8 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, or 5 p.m. Pacific. The rocket will be launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The actual payload of the Zuma mission is essentially unknown. The Falcon 9 will carry a U.S. government satellite made by Northrop Grumman into low earth orbit. But no one knows what the satellite is for, or even what branch of the government is launching it. The launch also comes after a long delay, with the first attempts going way back in November.

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One other semi-mysterious detail about the Zuma mission is that it shares a name with Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa. There’s been no official acknowledgment of a connection, though SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is originally from South Africa and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Zuma is in the midst of a fight for his political life, as years of accusations of corruption have culminated in parliamentary efforts to remove him from power.

As one South African news outlet cheekily commented on the SpaceX launch, “some South Africans wouldn’t mind seeing Zuma blasted into space.”

Assuming the Zuma launch goes smoothly, things should get a lot more exciting for SpaceX by the end of the month. That’s the current general window for the first live test launch of the Falcon Heavy, a massive rocket designed to carry humans into space, and which marks the first stage of Musk’s plan to colonize Mars. Musk has opined, however, that there’s a good chance the Falcon Heavy will fail in its first launch attempt because some elements of its operation are impossible to fully test on the ground.

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