A nearly two-month delay has only added to the mystery surrounding a classified government mission SpaceX plans to launch Sunday night from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station — the first of potentially more than 30 Space Coast launches in 2018.
A Falcon 9 rocket is targeting liftoff from Launch Complex 40 as soon as 8 p.m., the opening of a two-hour window. Roughly eight minutes after launching, the rocket's first-stage will attempt to land back at the Cape, producing window-rattling sonic booms.
Code-named Zuma, the mission contracted by Northrop Grumman for an unspecified U.S. agency was delayed from mid-November. SpaceX said it needed time to review a concern about the rocket’s nose cone, since resolved.
At that time, the Zuma spacecraft appeared bound for an orbit that would place it close to a spy agency satellite SpaceX had launched earlier in the year, and also to the International Space Station.
Amateur satellite trackers speculated about a link between Zuma and the satellite launched for the National Reconnaissance Office last May, which also flew northeast into a low orbit roughly 250 miles up.
That spacecraft, categorized as USA 276 in orbit, was spotted last June performing maneuvers that one tracker called “really weird.”
The satellite approached within four miles of the ISS and circled the research complex housing six crew members. It then remained relatively nearby as a pair of U.S. cargo craft came and went.
Those interactions might have been coincidental, as the NRO mission had suffered a launch delay. But trackers guessed that USA 276, built by Ball Aerospace, might be experimenting with technologies for closely watching spacecraft as they approached each other and linked up.
Why? Military officials have sounded alarms about a growing vulnerability to aggressive action by Chinese or Russian satellites that might try to destroy or disable critical U.S. space assets such as GPS, communications or reconnaissance satellites.
The NRO craft might be testing sensors that could help detect and expose enemies up to no good.
And Zuma might be up to something similar, as it would fly into a very similar orbit inclined about 50 degrees relative to the equator, according to publicly available information.
But all that speculation was undermined when the Zuma launch was rescheduled for Jan. 4.
No longer would the USA 276 spy satellite and the ISS fly directly over Cape Canaveral during Zuma’s launch window, enabling Zuma to easily chase them down.
Now the spacecraft would not pass overhead until hours later, suggesting the missions might not be related after all.
Then, more delays. SpaceX pushed the launch back to Jan. 5 and then Jan. 7, citing “extreme weather.” Frosty Florida temperatures did not prevent launch teams from performing fueling tests on the pad, but high-altitude winds also were said to be very strong.
Marco Langbroek, the satellite tracker who chronicled USA 276's unusual activity last summer, now notes that the spacecraft will fly over the Cape less than 45 minutes after Zuma’s launch window closes, placing the two spacecraft fairly near each other if Zuma launches late in the window.
Their orbital tracks would get closer with additional delays.
“I could speculate that perhaps Zuma and USA 276 are part of the same experimental program,” Langbroek, a member of the astronomy department at Leiden University in the Netherlands, wrote in his blog. “Perhaps they are technology demonstrators in competition for a follow-up contract. But this is pure speculation.”
“Exactly how (if at all) the two satellites are related to each other remains murky,” he concluded. “Maybe future orbital behavior will shed some light on what Zuma is doing.”
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