Could a secret U.S. government spacecraft be bound for a rendezvous with a spy satellite or even the International Space Station?
Little is known about the mission called Zuma that is awaiting launch from Kennedy Space Center aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX put the mission on hold last week to review an issue that came up in tests of Falcon nose cones, and no new launch date had been set as of Saturday.
The mission’s name probably has nothing to do with South African President Jacob Zuma, in a nod to Elon Musk’s roots in that country, or with Zuma the chocolate lab from the children’s cartoon “Paw Patrol,” as some have guessed or kidded.
But speculation about one intriguing scenario would link Zuma to another classified national security mission SpaceX launched earlier this year for the National Reconnaissance Office.
To be clear: The NRO has not confirmed any involvement with Zuma, while the spy agency has disclosed five other launches this year.
Zuma’s unusual northeasterly trajectory into a low Earth orbit, however, looks similar to the NRO mission a Falcon 9 launched from KSC on May 1, labeled NROL-76.
Amateur satellite trackers specializing in classified missions later detected some surprising activity by that spacecraft, which in orbit was labeled USA 276.
On June 3, the spacecraft approached within about four miles of the ISS — just barely outside its imaginary safety zone — and circled the orbiting research complex occupied by six astronauts.
Over the next two days it remained within 600 to 1,200 miles while a pair of unmanned cargo ships came and went from the outpost.
The June 4 departure of Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft was a surprise, occurring a month ahead of schedule. A SpaceX Dragon arrived June 5.
The close encounters suggested the NRO mission, led by Ball Aerospace, might be testing technologies for observing the rendezvous and grappling of spacecraft in low Earth orbit.
Military planners have increasingly voiced concerns about the potential for Russian and Chinese satellites to approach and disable critical American spacecraft. The Air Force in recent years has launched two pairs of satellites designed to track threats in much higher geosynchronous orbits, where high-value communications, reconnaissance, weather and missile warning satellites fly.
Or was the NRO mission’s proximity to the space station and the flurry of activity there nothing more than a series coincidences, after multiple launch delays?
Politically, it’s difficult to believe the NRO would have flown so close to the manned ISS, a symbol of international cooperation and peaceful uses of space, by accident.
“If the flyby was intentional, one has to wonder if targeting a high-profile object like the ISS was meant to send a signal,” wrote Marco Langbroek, a satellite tracker and member of the astronomy department at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in a June article in “The Space Review.”
Whether intentional or not, Langbroek concluded, the early June events were “really weird.”
If the Zuma launch, which was contracted by Northrop Grumman, had happened Thursday or Friday, Langbroek noted that the NRO's USA 276 spacecraft would have flown over Cape Canaveral near the launch window.
That would have placed Zuma, which appears headed for a similar orbit inclined about 50 degrees relative to the equator, according to publicly available information, close to USA 276 once in orbit.
Observations post-launch will attempt to confirm if Zuma performs an orbital dance with USA 276, the ISS, or both.
Or if it ends up in a very different orbit that suggests an entirely different mission.
“I readily admit, this all to a high degree remains speculation and wishful thinking of course,” Langbroek wrote to fellow satellite trackers of the potential connection between the Zuma and NRO missions. “We’ll see what happens. But I found it curious enough to draw attention to it.”