That SpaceX launch a couple of weeks ago didn’t generate nearly as many headlines as I would have expected, especially considering all of the “mystery” surrounding it. In fact, I probably heard more about it on some of the paranormal/conspiracy theory podcasts I listen to than anything in the mainstream media. The reason? Zuma. What’s Zuma, you might ask? Good question. Nobody seems to know much about it other than the fact that it’s a satellite (or possibly not) commissioned by one of the alphabet agencies of the U.S. government and nobody was supposed to talk about it. The folks at Space.com put together a brief rundown of what’s known about it, but even they admitted that it wasn’t much.
It was originally scheduled to launch on November 15th, but that got pushed back several times until they finally put it up in the air on the 7th of this month. And then something went wrong. Maybe. Supposedly the payload failed to detach from the rocket and it burned up in the atmosphere. But nobody seems to be able to confirm that either. The Verge reports that the only thing we know for sure is that the government isn’t blaming SpaceX, assuming the launch actually was a failure.
Rumors have been circulating that something went wrong with the classified Zuma satellite that SpaceX launched on the tip of a Falcon 9 rocket two weeks ago. But few clues have emerged to explain what happened to the mysterious satellite. Now, comments from the US Air Force seem to suggest that if something did indeed go wrong, whatever it was, it might not have been SpaceX’s fault.
The Air Force certified SpaceX to conduct military missions in 2015. And for now, the company will keep its certification, Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told Bloomberg. “Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status.” The Air Force appears to be saying — albeit, indirectly — that the failure wasn’t SpaceX’s (if, indeed, there was one).
Of course, the Air Force “will continue to evaluate data from all launches” — so that verdict could change.
The President and CEO of SpaceX is standing by their original position. “Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night.” Assuming that’s true, we’re left with one of two conclusions. If the launch failed it was because Northrop Grumman designed and delivered their own payload adaptor which is responsible for separating the bird from the rocket and that mechanism failed to perform. Alternately, the entire “failure” story is a smokescreen and Zuma is up there right now doing whatever it’s supposed to be doing.
Would they really give something so top secret to SpaceX to handle? Why not? Last September they let them launch the robotic X-37B space plane, and that’s a pretty hush-hush program. And last May they were given the job of putting up a bird for the National Reconnaissance Office, and spy satellites are pretty much all they do. But if we know about those two launches, what on Earth could be so secret about Zuma?
One possibility is that Zuma wasn’t just dumped into any standard Low Earth Orbit and sent off on its own. Just two years ago we learned that the U.S. was increasingly concerned about some aggressive “hunter-killer” satellites being operated by both the Russians and the Chinese. We were supposedly behind in that race and working on catching up. It’s possible that Zuma is (or was supposed to be) a hunter-killer of our own.
But at this stage of the game, can we really hide satellites anymore? Amateurs with telescopes that you can get for less than a thousand dollars can see them, providing they know where and when to look. Of course, the “where and when” part is tricky, but with enough patience you could probably find it. For the time being, however, the fate of Zuma seems to be destined to remain in the general basket of black money projects and cloaked by issues of national security.