- Neither Northrop Grumman (manufactured the Zuma spacecraft) nor SpaceX confirmed if the mission was successful.
- Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg reported that the spacecraft actually fell back to Earth.
- Pentagon is saying “ask SpaceX about Zuma”, whereas SpaceX has told “that’s now our story to tell”.
On 7th January, SpaceX launched a secret classified satellite named Zuma for the unknown government organization. The secrecy of the mission was carefully guarded. Details only emerged in paperwork submitted a few days before the launch.
However, a day later rumors started spreading that the Zuma mission failed – it’s possible the mysterious satellite may have been lost once in space. In fact, some highly authorized news sources, including Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg reported that the spacecraft actually fell back to Earth somewhere in the Indian Ocean, or it burned up in the atmosphere.
The Pentagon (US Department of Defense) is saying “ask SpaceX about Zuma”, whereas SpaceX has told “that’s now our story to tell”. The Zuma situation is now getting weirder. Let’s find out what actually happened. Is something went wrong in a really big way?
The Falcon 9 Launch was Successful
SpaceX didn’t broadcast the complete launch process due to the secretive nature of the mission. However, they showed the successful reentry of Falcon 9 rocket. The separation of the nose cone and satellite’s deployment into orbit were kept secret.
Neither Northrop Grumman (manufactured the Zuma spacecraft) nor SpaceX confirmed if the mission was successful. However, SpaceX did mention that their Falcon 9 rocket was in full working order and performed all its tasks correctly. Because of the classified nature of the mission, they couldn’t comment of the spacecraft.
According to the Wall Street Journal report, Zuma spacecraft fell back to Earth (in Indian Ocean) because it did not separate from the second stage of the launch vehicle.
But if the Falcon rocket performed the way it is supposed to, as stated by SpaceX, the satellite much have entered its intended orbit, because once you get any object up there, it can’t fall down because of its high speed (it continues to rotate around the earth at a particular height).
The Joint Space Operations Center of US Strategic Command keeps track of all spacecraft orbiting our planet through Space Surveillance Network – set of ground based telescopes and radar. They made a new entry in the catalogue after the SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch.
This means, the spacecraft, USA 280, completed at least 1 orbit around the planet. There aren’t any further data. They don’t provide orbit details of secret spacecraft, but at least they do make a catalogue entry, with a unique number and a national designation.
This implies that either they don’t have anything to add to the catalog at this moment, or they made the entry by mistake.
Either 900 million top-secret mission hardware has been lost in the space after launch, or someone really doesn’t want you to know about the US government new satellite.
No one is saying for certain what actually did happen, but it’s possible that the Falcon rocket would have performed normally and the Zuma spacecraft did not deploy as it was supposed to. This is not the fault of SpaceX, they did their task pretty well.
According to a Wired report, Northrop Grumman designed and provided its own payload adapter – a module that physically detaches the spacecraft from launch vehicle. It’s possible that this adapter didn’t work properly, leaving the spacecraft still attached to the second stage rocket.
Northrop Grumman would not comment on this, but it makes sense – the satellite still reached the orbit where it was identified by US Strategic Command. Since the spacecraft is not designed to work with a launch vehicle attacked on its tail, it might have de-orbited.
It is also possible that the spacecraft was deployed at lower altitude than expected (contradicts to what SpaceX stated) which dragged it down to the Earth. Or it accidentally de-orbited itself due to some software/hardware error(s). Or maybe it’s still up there in the space not responding.
Searching For Zuma
If the satellite did fall back on Earth, there are very less chances it would have survived through the atmosphere – it would all burn up in the upper atmosphere. If it’s stilling floating around in space, it would take astronomers at least a week to catch a glimpse of the satellite. And because it’s a classified mission, we will hardly get a straight answer.