What happened to SpaceX’s secret satellite?

SpaceX Falcon 9

SpaceX‘s successful launch of the Mars-bound Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral has hit all the headlines worldwide and rightly so.

However, the hype surrounding this landmark achievement has somewhat shifted the focus off of another SpaceX endeavor which saw Elon Musk’s company send a top-secret payload to space for the US government Sunday. 

The cargo has been lost and many theories of what may have happened started circulating the internet ever since the news emerged. 

Earlier this year a US intelligence satellite was launched into space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Shortly thereafter, a number of respected news outlets reported that the satellite has failed to reach orbit and was presumed lost.

SpaceX quickly shrugged off any suggestions that the company was responsible for the failure, with President and COO Gwynne Shotwell issuing a statement claiming that ‘Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night’.

Northrop Grumman, which was contracted to manufacture the spacecraft and book the lift-off on behalf of the US government, has refused to comment on the matter citing the classified nature of the mission code-named Zuma.

So what happened to the satellite after leaving Florida?

Images recorded by pilots and amateur spotters show the Falcon 9 upper stage venting fuel in flight over Africa several hours after launch. On this evidence, it would seem that the section of the rocket that stored the government’s secret payload did achieve orbit, as envisioned in the SpaceX launch plan.

Last year, Wired reported that Northrop Grumman manufactured its own custom-made adapter to attach its payload to the inside of rocket, with NASASpaceflight.com noting that payload processing was not carried out at SpaceX facilities for the Zuma launch.

Astronomer and veteran launch observer Jonathan McDowell tweeted last month that “when you buy a rocket launch, you’ve paid for the payload adapter on the rocket final stage pops the satellite off at the end.”

On this mission, however, the customer provided its own payload adapter.

This, according to Mr. McDowell, may have caused a separation problem that cannot be attributed to SpaceX.

The evidence that we have certainly suggest that the rocked did reach orbit, most likely with the payload still attached to it. This certainly rules out the theory that the satellite crashed back to Earth as misleading at best. If we take all this into account, three plausible explanations remain.

1 Zuma did not separate from the rocket and probably burned up along with it. 

  1. It is still in orbit and is malfunctioning.
  2. It is still in orbit and is “alive and well”.

As one would expect, the failure of the satellite resulted in the emergence of a number of conspiracy theories suggesting that it is some sort of cover story to allow Zuma to secretly orbit our planet for whatever reason.

Mr. McDowell, though, rubbished these claims as “not plausible” for a number of reasons including the fact that nowadays everyone possesses the ability to track even clandestine satellites.

He reckons that if Zuma is still up there, chances are it would be found within a few weeks, much like other secret SpaceX payloads in the past.

Then there is the possibility that Zuma did reach orbit and successfully separated from the Falcon 9 before it was rendered inoperable. A similar story already played out in the past when a US spy satellite failed shortly after achieving orbit in 2006. The satellite was subsequently shot down as part of a military mission code-named “Burnt Frost”.

Of course, there is also the possibility that we may never find out what really happened to Zuma.

 

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