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On 8 January 2018 the top-secret USA-280 satellite, as known as Zuma, went up, but a funny thing happened on the way to orbit. It was launched to the northeast at a vector of approximately 51° off the equator. A rough course estimate would have taken Zuma south of Great Britain, across Europe (possibly over France, Italy, and Greece,) over Saudia Arabia, and to the Indian Ocean west and/or south of India. According to one unnamed source, that is where the flight of USA-280 ended.

Zuma went down in the Indian Ocean?

Possible approximate flight path of Zuma

Elon We Have a Problem

The first hint that something was wrong is when Brian Mahlstedt, the launch narrator for SpaceX, paused for 90 seconds after announcing that the fairing (the cover around the satellite) would deploy “…any second..” and then changed the subject when he began talking again. This was also significant because he said that coverage of the launch phase of the would end AFTER the deployment of the fairings. Had the fairings deployed as scheduled it would not have crossed over into the coverage of the landing of the booster phase, which was what happened. 

The second hint was when SpaceX public relations (PR) didn’t spike the ball after the launch, praising its success.

By the next morning, sources were quietly saying that the satellite didn’t make orbit. Some seemed to suggest that the fault was with the SpaceX rocket. Some indicated the release platform of the satellite failed, keeping it connected to the upper stage as it fell back to Earth.

SpaceX came out with a qualified statement that didn’t deny the failure to achieve orbit but adamantly implied that the SpaceX rocket performed as intended. Northrop Grumman, the contractor for the super secret satellite and the release platform announced that it didn’t comment on confidential payloads. 

Disinformation Campaign

A few media sites suggested that maybe everything was fine and the satellite was safely in orbit. It was a tactic that a covert agency might employ to feed a few trusted sources with a disinformation campaign to calm the discussion of failure, and for the most part, it worked. Few follow-up reports have been made about USA-280.

The evidence, or lack of it, is telling a different story. Astronomy hobbyists, some highly skilled in finding and tracking human-made objects in orbit, have spent the past three weeks trying to find the ‘invisible’ satellite with no success. They have found a satellite lost over ten years ago, but no one has sighted the wayward Zuma satellite.

The Zuma Fairing Mystery?

The chronology of the fairing deployment is as follows: 

  • T+0:50 seconds (50 seconds after liftoff) – A SpaceX announcer begins a live and nearly continuous commentary regarding upcoming events with the Falcon 9 rocket, pausing only for those events to be confirmed by SpaceX control.
  • T+2:03 – SpaceX announcer pauses as four events related to second stage separation are about to begin.
  • T+3:06 – SpaceX announcer resumes commentary and confirms a successful second stage separation, and explains at T+3:15 that fairing separation “…should occur any second now” (ejection of protective nose shell around satellite.) He continues on to say that he will confirm the fairing separation after it occurs.
  • T+3:26 – SpaceX announcer begins a pause that lasts for one minute and thirty seconds.
  • T+4:57 – SpaceX announcer says, “Alright, so we’ll address the fairing deployment in a second once we have more information, but for now we’re going to shift our transition back to our secondary mission…”
  • T+5:17 – SpaceX announcer says, “…ah, quick sidebar here that we did get confirmation that the fairings did deploy.”

The launch of Zuma was delayed last November because of an issue with the fairing deployment. The question is whether the previous issue along with the 90-second pause in announcing the fairing deployment indicate there was an in-flight problem with the fairing.

Best Guess?

Everything is speculation. Based on what we know, this is my suggestion of the most likely scenario:

  • The fairing failed to deploy at the prescribed time, but it did deploy late. (That would fit SpaceX’s non-denial denial.)
  • The late deployment caused a decision to abort the flight so that it would come down in the Indian Ocean.
  • Had the abort been held off, the flight might have been able to continue, but point-of-no-return in the abort decision had been reached and the flight was terminated.

This would still allow SpaceX to claim its rocket performed ‘nominally’ and only fudge a little when not admitting the fairing issue. It would also suggest that there was disagreement during the ascent phase and that the incident is a sore spot for the parties involved…

…but you didn’t hear that from me.

[COUNT TO 500:  490th Article in PAULx]