James Dean, FLORIDA TODAY , WTSP
eight:11 AM. EST November 19, 2017
Could a secret U.S. authorities spacecraft be certain for a rendezvous with a spy satellite tv for pc and even the International Space Station?
Little is understood in regards to the mission referred to as Zuma that’s awaiting launch from Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX put the mission on maintain final week to badessment a problem that got here up in exams of Falcon nostril cones, and no new launch date had been set as of Saturday.
The mission’s title most likely has nothing to do with South African President Jacob Zuma, in a nod to Elon Musk’s roots in that nation, or with Zuma the chocolate lab from the youngsters’s cartoon “Paw Patrol,” as some have guessed or kidded.
But hypothesis about one intriguing state of affairs would hyperlink Zuma to a different labeled nationwide safety mission SpaceX launched earlier this yr for the National Reconnaissance Office.
To be clear: The NRO has not confirmed any involvement with Zuma, whereas the spy company has disclosed 5 different launches this yr.
Zuma’s uncommon northeasterly trajectory right into a low Earth orbit, nevertheless, seems to be just like the NRO mission a Falcon 9 launched from KSC on May 1, labeled NROL-76.
Amateur satellite tv for pc trackers specializing in labeled missions later detected some stunning exercise by that spacecraft, which in orbit was labeled USA 276.
On June three, the spacecraft approached inside about 4 miles of the ISS — simply barely outdoors its imaginary security zone — and circled the orbiting badysis advanced occupied by six astronauts.
Over the following two days it remained inside 600 to 1,200 miles whereas a pair of unmanned cargo ships got here and went from the outpost.
The June four departure of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft was a shock, occurring a month forward of schedule. A SpaceX Dragon arrived June 5.
The shut encounters prompt the NRO mission, led by Ball Aerospace, could be testing applied sciences for observing the rendezvous and grappling of spacecraft in low Earth orbit.
Military planners have more and more voiced considerations in regards to the potential for Russian and Chinese satellites to method and disable crucial American spacecraft. The Air Force lately has launched two pairs of satellites designed to trace threats in a lot greater geosynchronous orbits, the place high-value communications, reconnaissance, climate and missile warning satellites fly.
Or was the NRO mission’s proximity to the house station and the flurry of exercise there nothing greater than a collection coincidences, after a number of launch delays?
Politically, it’s troublesome to consider the NRO would have flown so near the manned ISS, an emblem of worldwide cooperation and peaceable makes use of of house, accidentally.
“If the flyby was intentional, one has to wonder if targeting a high-profile object like the ISS was meant to send a signal,” wrote Marco Langbroek, a satellite tv for pc tracker and member of the astronomy division at Leiden University within the Netherlands, in a June article in “The Space Review.”
Whether intentional or not, Langbroek concluded, the early June occasions have been “really weird.”
If the Zuma launch, which was contracted by Northrop Grumman, had occurred Thursday or Friday, Langbroek famous that the NRO’s USA 276 spacecraft would have flown over Cape Canaveral close to the launch window.
That would have positioned Zuma, which seems headed for the same orbit inclined about 50 levels relative to the equator, in line with publicly obtainable data, near USA 276 as soon as in orbit.
Observations post-launch will try to verify if Zuma performs an orbital dance with USA 276, the ISS, or each.
Or if it leads to a really totally different orbit that implies a completely totally different mission.
“I readily admit, this all to a high degree remains speculation and wishful thinking of course,” Langbroek wrote to fellow satellite tv for pc trackers of the potential connection between the Zuma and NRO missions. “We’ll see what happens. But I found it curious enough to draw attention to it.”
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