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SpaceX to launch its most mysterious payload yet

The private rocket company is launching something for the government on Thursday. And that's about all anyone knows.

falcon

A SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying the mysterious "Zuma" awaits launch Tuesday night.

SpaceX

SpaceX is taking on another secret mission in Florida on Thursday.

Elon Musk's rocket company will be sending a mysterious payload known only as "Zuma" into low earth orbit from Cape Canaveral. That will be followed by the company's signature rocket landing and recovery

Just about all that is known about Zuma is that it's going to help the US government do ... something. It's not even known which part of the federal government the payload belongs to. Federal contractor Northrop Grumman arranged the launch with SpaceX on behalf of the government, presumably to help preserve the restricted nature of the mission.

"The US Government assigned Northrop Grumman the responsibility of acquiring launch services for this mission," Northrop Grumman's strategic communications director Lon Rains told me in an emailed statement. "As a company, Northrop Grumman realizes this is a monumental responsibility and we have taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma."

This isn't the first secret payload SpaceX has sent to space. In September a Falcon 9 rocket launched the Air Force's secretive X-37B "spaceplane" into orbit. The company also sent a new spy satellite into space for the National Reconnaissance Office earlier this year,. (The NRO told Aviation Week in October that Zuma is not their bird.) 

Zuma is one of the more secretive missions in recent memory, given that even the part of the government responsible for it remains unknown.

The launch was set for Wednesday, but pushed back a day "to conduct additional mission assurance work," according to SpaceX.

After pushing Zuma towards orbit, the Falcon 9 booster will attempt to return home and land ashore at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Landing Zone 1. Some people along Florida's coast will hear a loud sonic boom as the rocket returns from space, which is probably more than we'll ever officially hear about what Zuma actually is. 

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