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Did SpaceX's secret Zuma mission really fail?



On Sunday night, SpaceX apparently successfully launched a classified satellite called Zuma for some unknown government agency, but it is possible that the mysterious spacecraft was lost once in space. On Monday, rumors began to circulate that the satellite malfunctioned when it reached orbit, and both Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have reported that Zuma really fell to Earth and burned to the ground. atmosphere of the planet. So, what really happened with the satellite? Nobody is speaking in the registry, but it seems clear that something went wrong.

Due to the reserved nature of the mission, SpaceX did not show the entire mission of Zuma during its live broadcast. Typically for commercial flights, the company will show the launch until deployment of the payload in orbit. However, the Zuma webcast did not transmit the separation of the cone of the nose, which surrounds the satellite during the launch, nor showed the deployment of the satellite. SpaceX has censored its live broadcasts in this way with other classified government charges that the company has launched. But generally SpaceX or the government agency he works with will confirm a successful mission later. So doubts began circulating Sunday night when neither SpaceX nor Northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the Zuma satellite, confirmed if the launch was successful.

Now Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal report that legislators and government officials have been informed about the disappearance of Zuma. However, both publications offer unclear information from their sources about what happened. A Bloomberg source says that the upper stage of Falcon 9 failed, while both WSJ and Bloomberg claim that the spacecraft did not separate from the rocket.

When it came to comment, SpaceX said that the Falcon 9 rocket, which brought Zuma into orbit, worked as it was supposed to. "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but from now on the revisions of the data indicate that Falcon 9 had a nominal performance," said a spokesman for SpaceX The Verge . A lot of information is packaged in that statement. SpaceX basically says that the Falcon 9 performed all the tasks it is supposed to perform during a mission. That includes the launch, the separation of the two stages of the rocket and the deployment of the satellite in its intended orbit. And as viewers saw Sunday night, the first stage of Falcon 9 achieved another successful landing after launch, indicating that the rocket was fully operational.

However, the SpaceX statement seems to contradict directly what Wall Street Journal is reporting. In its report, WSJ says that the Zuma satellite fell to Earth because it did not separate from the top of the rocket. But if the rocket worked normally, as SpaceX said, that would mean that the spacecraft should have separated from Falcon 9. And the rocket should definitely have brought the satellite into its intended orbit.

Another complication is that it saw an object that was probably the satellite in orbit by the US Strategic Command. UU after the launch of SpaceX. The Joint Strategic Operations Center of the Strategic Command tracks all artificial objects that orbit the Earth using a series of terrestrial radars and telescopes known as the Space Surveillance Network, and maintains an active catalog of these satellites. After the launch of SpaceX, a new entry was made to the catalog at Space-Track.org for a US satellite designated as USA 280. That probably means that someone within Strategic Command added Zuma to the catalog after the satellite completed an orbit . However, there is not much additional information about the track.

"For the secret satellites, they do not give us the route of the orbit, but they do make a catalog entry," Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astrophysicist and space flight expert, says The Verge . "It gets a catalog number and a national designation, and the fact that there is an entry means that a charge went into orbit and completed at least one orbit around the Earth."

However, the Strategic Command also says that it has "nothing to add to the satellite catalog". time, "according to Navy Capt. Brook DeWalt, a spokesman for the command, who spoke with [Bloomberg .) That could mean that the center has nothing to add beyond the entry of the new satellite or that the United States entry 280 was added by mistake.Strategic Command did not return immediately The Verge's request for comments.


SpaceX's Falcon 9 took off with Zuma on board
Image: SpaceX

So, what really happened? No one is saying with certainty, but there are a couple of scenarios in which the Falcon 9 could have acted as it was assumed that and the spacecraft did not deploy correctly Normally, SpaceX uses its own hardware on top of its rocket to send a satellite into orbit, which is known as a payload adapter.It is a device that physically separates the satellite from the top of the rocket and However, a previous report from Wired noted that Northrop Grumman provided its own payload adapter for this mission. And if that payload adapter failed, it would have left the satellite still connected to the top of the rocket. That is certainly a mission failure, but it will not necessarily be the fault of the Falcon 9.

Of course, Northrop Grumman will not comment on the release. "This is a classified mission, we can not comment on classified missions," said Lon Rains, director of communications for Northrop, in a statement The Verge . But a failure in the charging adapter would explain a lot: it would mean that the spacecraft and the upper stage of the rocket reached the orbit still attached, where they were picked up by strategic control. Then the two somehow got out of order, by accident or maybe on purpose, it is possible that SpaceX used the rocket to send the pair at full speed to Earth, since Zuma was not designed to live in orbit with a rocket moored to your back.

Several other scenarios are still on the table, since no one is confirming what actually happened in the registry and the reports of the publications contradict each other. For example, Bloomberg reports that the upper stage of Falcon 9 failed, contradicting what SpaceX is saying. Then perhaps the satellite was deployed in a lower than expected orbit and was dragged to Earth. Or maybe the satellite somehow malfunctioned and accidentally maneuvered on a path to the planet. Or the spacecraft is still there but it just does not respond, a cold box that surrounds the Earth.

Amateur astronomers could look for Zuma in the coming weeks. "The fans have not seen it and there is no prospect of seeing it for a few weeks, because it is not in the right conditions of sunlight," says McDowell. But you may not find anything if it is not there.

Until someone speaks on the record, it is difficult to know for certain. Meanwhile, the signals indicate that SpaceX is quite satisfied with the launch. The company has been tweeting images of the mission, indicating that everything went well. In addition, SpaceX launched its new Falcon Heavy rocket to its main launchpad for an upcoming test, which probably would not have happened if there was a major problem with the company's rocket hardware.

But since Zuma is a classified mission, it seems doubtful that we get a direct answer. It is possible that there is a government satellite killed in orbit at this time, but it seems that it succumbed to Earth's atmosphere during the weekend.


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