Top-secret satellite Zuma was launched successfully by SpaceX late night on 7 January and it seemed to have gone according to plan. Or did it?
The highly secretive nature of the mission meant that SpaceX did not show the complete mission on its live stream. The broadcast cut off the separation of the cone and the deployment of the satellite. Though SpaceX has reportedly done this before with other government launches, it has always confirmed if the mission was successful or not.
Neither SpaceX nor the satellite manufacturer Northrop Grumman have given an update. Suspicious?
Rumours swirling around claim that Zuma actually fell back and burned up in Earth's atmosphere. Sources speaking to Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) have claimed that the Falcon 9's upper stage failed and that the satellite did not separate from the rocket.
The Verge reached out to SpaceX for a comment and was told that reviews of the data indicated that the Falcon 9 "performed nominally". According to the report by The Verge, this meant that the Falcon 9 performed all the tasks as it was supposed to which included "the launch, the separation of the rocket’s two stages, and deployment of the satellite into orbit".
This directly contradicted the WSJ report which mentioned that the separation did not occur, resulting in the satellite falling back to the earth. However, to complicate matters further, The Verge reported that the US Strategic Command saw a satellite in orbit after the Zuma launch and a new entry was catalogued on Space-Track.org for a US satellite designated USA 280.
For those who don't know, US Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Centre is constantly tracking artificial satellites in and around the Earth's orbit and also maintains a catalogue on the above-mentioned site.
Another contradiction emerged as Bloomberg reported that Navy Captain Brook DeWalt of the US Strategic Command reportedly gave a statement saying that there was "nothing to add to the satellite catalogue at this time." This confusing muddle up has got everyone wondering what could have happened to Zuma?
There are a few possibilities according to The Verge report. SpaceX is known to use its own hardware called as the payload adapter on its rocket to send up a satellite into orbit. The Wired has claimed earlier in a report that "Northrop Grumman provided its own payload adapter" for the mission.
A faulty payload adapter would reportedly mean that the Falcon 9 made it to the orbit with the satellite attached to it at which point it was catalogued by the Strategic Command. After that, we can only guess what happened but according to the report the two could have deorbited or some other accident might have occurred, resulting in the burning down of the Zuma satellite.
This is all just speculation and until some concrete evidence pops up or some official goes on record about the mission, we will only be able to theorise about the outcome.
SpaceX, reportedly, seems to be happy with the launch, flooding their social media with pictures of it. Also, the Falcon Heavy has been rolled on to the primary launch site, which would have been unlikely if SpaceX had messed up the Zuma launch.
Let's hope we hear something more than conflicting reports in the upcoming days.