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Space Communications The Military United States

Rumors Swirl That Secret Zuma Satellite Launched By SpaceX Was Lost (scientificamerican.com) 171

Many media outlets are reporting that the U.S. government's top-secret Zuma satellite may have run into some serious problems during or shortly after its Sunday launch. Zuma was launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Sunday evening -- a launch that also featured a successful landing back on Earth by the booster's first stage. While everything seemed fine at the time, rumors began swirling within the spaceflight community that something had happened to Zuma. "According to one source, the payload fell back to Earth along with the spent upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket," Ars Technica's Eric Berger wrote. Scientific American reports: To be clear: There is no official word of any bad news, just some rumblings to that effect. And the rocket apparently did its job properly, SpaceX representatives said. "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now, reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally," company spokesman James Gleeson told Space.com via email. Space.com also reached out to representatives of aerospace company Northrop Grumman, which built Zuma for the U.S. government. "This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions," Northrop Grumman spokesman Lon Rains said via email. All we know about the satellite itself is that it was destined for a low-Earth orbit and built for the U.S. government. We will update this story if we hear anything else about Zuma's status.

Rumors Swirl That Secret Zuma Satellite Launched By SpaceX Was Lost

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  • by sTERNKERN ( 1290626 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @02:02AM (#55898855)
    If I was a secret agency with an agenda and everybody watched my satellite being sent up into space I'd claim it was lost, too.
    • by MrKaos ( 858439 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @02:26AM (#55898913) Journal

      If I was a secret agency with an agenda and everybody watched my satellite being sent up into space I'd claim it was lost, too.

      Maybe it's fake news.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        If I was a secret agency with an agenda and everybody watched my satellite being sent up into space I'd claim it was lost, too.

        Maybe it's fake news.

        Honestly, everything Elon Musk does is almost immediately followed up with news articles claiming that he'll fail. I've read about 20 so far, professing that he'll never sell cars outside of California, to his SpaceX rockets will never get off the ground, to his landing of a SpaceX rocket will never work, to his never getting permits for a hyperloop, to his mega battery plant going under, to his (recent) never being able to ship 1000 Model 3 cars before the year's end.

        It is like there is some news agency t

        • by bondsbw ( 888959 )

          Honestly, everything Elon Musk does is almost immediately followed up with news articles claiming that he'll fail.

          Well one day he will. And the lucky person who made that claim will finally get their time in glory.

        • Honestly, everything Elon Musk does is almost immediately followed up with news articles claiming that he'll fail.

          I wonder if this was published in English already, only saw it in Russian:

          We'll talk when they have a prototype to show
          We'll talk when the rocket flies
          We'll talk when they deliver a payload
          We'll talk when it lands
          We'll talk when a used rocket flies
          <=== you are here
          We'll talk when Falcon Heavy flies
          We'll talk when there's a manned mission
          We'll talk when they fly to the Moon
          We'll talk when they

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @02:39AM (#55898975) Journal
      Smart people around the world have learned to look for the extra "darkness" of a US sat thats trying to hide.
      No new darkness, no new bright light ? No new sat? Did they get it just right this time?
      Misty (satellite) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
      • If they have nearly unlimited resources to hide or obfuscate something, there is basically no way to know. It doesn't matter what they say, does it work, does it not work, what does it do, what does it not do. We can't know, because anything could be another layer of the cover story.

        Same as it always was.

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          Re "If they have nearly unlimited resources to hide or obfuscate something, there is basically no way to know."
          People can detect the shape moving, no matter the radar profile, a new color.
          Something new and bright/dark moving in front of everything else thats not as dark up in space that was not moving yesterday is going to get noticed by most nations able to map the night sky above their own nation to some level of skill over decades.
          The best way to avoid that is to use a space plane. Nobody expects an
          • The government has spent a couple decades or so working on hiding satellites from optical and radar observation. There's no reason to believe that anything and everything launched today would be readily observable using the old methods.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            Unless it was a huge cluster of micro satellites that are made to look like space debris.

            Imagine 1000 miniature x37b's flying up there.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If I was the head of a secret agency with an agenda that just watched my multi-billion dollar spy satellite burn up in orbit due to my own agency's extreme incompetence I'd proudly declare that it was a complete loss and instruct my mockingbird CIA puppets in the media to call anyone who said otherwise a conspiracy theorist.
      Then I'd go have a drink and give myself a raise.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Depends on who is making the claim it was lost, if it was the Govt, then i would say possible cover up. If it was neutral 3rd parties that might have been monitoring the launch then there might be some truth to it. For example you could have been following the launch with a telescope and see the upper stage blow up in space. Though thats not to say that the upper stage couldn't have had multiple components, one piece designed as a decoy to blow up, while the real payload continued on is way. Would make it s

      • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @03:47AM (#55899099) Journal
        AC if it was a 100% gov/mil project then its cool to just try again. Nobody would know.

        The problem now is the private sector wants to claim its been successful for their role.
        So other projects have faith in their ability to put their things into space without fall apart.
        It got into space at the right location and time. The private sector did everything correct and then something after it moved away and became a gov/mil project?
        • They didn't say it got into space at the right time or location, they only said the rocket operated nominally.

          • by Rei ( 128717 )

            A nominal launch by definition launches a payload into the contracted trajectory.

            • SpaceX is saying they did that, they got the payload to where it needed to be to separate from the rocket. The suggestion is that it failed to separate, but that doesn't mean the actual launch itself failed. It means the mission failed, if that's true, but the launch and the mission aren't the same thing.

    • Oh, hey, how about a Senate hearing? That will convince that crazy Kim nork that it's gone.

    • It's gone rogue!

    • Hopefully the US is building a Rods from God kinetic bombardment system with all those secret launches.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

      The God Emperor will smite North Korean rockets with his mind! With our mind! My cup runneth over! [wikiquote.org]

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        I've thought that rods of god would be the best way to deal with DPRK.

        The total absence of any missile trajectory, radar signature or aircraft flight path could give the US plausible deniability, possibly even a way to argue it was meteor fragments and not a man made object, especially since there would be no explosive residue or radiological signature.

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          Re 'would be the best way to deal with DPRK."
          The US has to think in terms of a 1950's Switzerland bunker complex. Lots of different caves packed with EMP resistant artillery thats pre set for action.
          No CPU, no computers, no networks. Just a lot of artillery thats ready to use.
          What does the US have that can get down into every cave and stop artillery?
          The NSA and CIA would have already contacted every top ranking DPRK mil and gov official with a deal. Dont fight and get an escape into China, money, no
          • The US needs infiltration units, like the CSM-101 T-800. Probably controlled by some sort of centralised AI. Those would be ideal for wiping out human survivors who hid in burrows after a nuclear war.

        • The only worrying possibility is that China is using North Korea to probe US missile defences in order to be able to build missiles that can evade them.

          E.g the US sold Tai some Patriot PAC3 launchers but they are so concerned about Chinese radar snooping that Taiwanese personnel had to fly to the US to test fire them

          http://www.straitstimes.com/as... [straitstimes.com]

          So if North Korea forced the US to intercept a missile with Aegis or GMD it would reveal a lot of information. And if it used Rods from God it would obviously re

        • I'm pretty sure a bunch of steel falling from orbit would show up on a military radar. They might have a lower radar cross section than a missile of similar destructiveness, but they won't be invisible.
        • by ddtmm ( 549094 )
          Except for the unexplainable 9 tons of tungsten embedded in everything in a 1/2 mile radius.
        • Kinetic orbital strikes are neither cost effective nor practical, and plausibly deniable attacks can be carried out through far less conspicuous methods. If we were to lead a preemptive strike against DPRK or its leadership (as preemptive action and regime change has always worked out so well for us in the past), we would probably want credit anyway, otherwise it's just a freak accident, not a warning by example. There's no need for subtly.

    • by hey! ( 33014 )

      In that case you have to ask who it is a secret from. China and Russia have anti-satellite weapons and so presumably have the technology to track objects in orbit.

      Unless it is a stealth satellite. The USNRO had a stealth (optical and radar) reconnaissance satellite program which they spent almost twelve billion on by the time it was cancelled in 2007.

      If it actually was cancelled. The only thing better than the ability to spy on your rivals is the ability to spy on them without them knowing you can do it.

    • If the US Government wanted to fuck with every bad actorâ(TM)s brain; theyâ(TM)d send a geology grad student to the moon with a shovel and a bucket for about one month. Not send a paper weight into an ultra low earth orbit.
    • They've done this before.

      CIA built (or rather, paid Howard Hughes to build) the Glomar Explorer and recovered the wreckage of a Soviet nuclear submarine, which was lying on the ocean floor 3 miles below the surface. Soviets at the time had no way of recovering it themselves.

      Decades later the secret mission was revealed, and CIA claims that 2/3 of the wreckage was lost due to a grapple failure, and that all the valuable stuff (nuclear launch codes, warheads, etc) were lost in the 2/3. However many analysts

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's so stealthy that it is right where they left it but just can't see it..
    They should have put a whistling key ring on it!!!

  • Isn't it cute... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by unwesen ( 241906 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @02:32AM (#55898933) Homepage

    ... how life imitates art?

    "Classified" does not mean secret. It merely means that it got assigned a classification level. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    But films in particular seem to find it using "classified" instead of the actual classification level much cooler. And now people use it for real.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @03:39AM (#55899087)

      The classification level of the classified mission is very classified.

      Posted as AC for classified reasons...

    • Every one of the classification levels in the article you linked (other than "unclassified") implies that the information should not be shared with the general public. "This information is classified" is synonymous with "this information should not be shared with the general public."
      • by unwesen ( 241906 )

        You're not wrong. That doesn't make the usage much better, though.

        Other than "unclassified" is part of the point. Information has to undergo the classification process (is classified) before it can be known that it's unclassified information, ironically. While the article clearly states that "unclassified" is not strictly speaking a classification level, information still has to be classified as "unclassified" in order to be shared.

        The other part of the point is that once information is "classified", it rea

        • Re:Isn't it cute... (Score:4, Informative)

          by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @04:56AM (#55899271) Journal
          In my own experience with military and NATO people, "classified" in everyday parlance means "assigned a classification level other than Unclassified". And in some cases you may not want to disclose the actual classification level. "That is classified" is useful shorthand for "Sorry, you cannot have / share this, because reasons", and applies internally as well between departments or organisations, not just the press. It's not a term made up by Hollywood.
          • by unwesen ( 241906 )

            Why do people read everything in absolutes? Nobody claimed it was made up.

            Not disclosing classification level is actually a good use case. I hadn't encountered that.

            I'm not encountering the term much, period. It's usually a classification level or another short hand, most often "can't share". YMMV.

    • But films in particular seem to find it using "classified" instead of the actual classification level much cooler. And now people use it for real.

      As an adjective applied specifically to information "classified" has a dual meaning of being both categorised AND restricted. This is consistent through all dictionaries.

      Even from your own link the only unrestricted classification is called "unclassified" which is specifically called out as "technically not a classification level". Films, media, and the general public are correct in using the term classified the way they do when talking about information.

      • by unwesen ( 241906 )

        So many things are correct, and yet useless.

        Let me pose the question differently: when your computer doesn't let you do something "for security reasons", and you need to do it for your job, what do you do?

        Do you say "oh well" and watch porn? Or do find out what access rights you need to do your job? Bonus question: what if it's watching porn that's not possible?

        What do you call classified information that you and the person you speak to both have access to?

    • by unwesen ( 241906 )

      I should have just written: "classified" and posted http://i0.kym-cdn.com/entries/... [kym-cdn.com]

    • Oh come on, "Top Secret" is both way cooler and an actual classification.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    as long as Elon's Tesla Roadster arrived safely in orbit

  • by BlueCoder ( 223005 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @02:38AM (#55898971)

    If it's super secret then maybe they made it disappear. It could be where it's suppose to be or never have actually launched.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Keeping the population in closed science cities kept other nations human spies out.
      Re "If it's super secret then maybe they made it disappear"
      Most nations with "nuclear" ambitions and other well hidden production lines have their "university" "astronomers" map the spies above their nation.
      For anything new and bright. Anything "new" that blocks out the existing data. Anything on the move.
      Nobody wants a new spy sat or spy platform thats on the move over their nation at an unexpected times.
      The mil toy
    • If they pay to launch an empty rocket, that might cost other countries a lot of money searching for nothing! They probably do that.

      • If they pay to launch an empty rocket, that might cost other countries a lot of money searching for nothing! They probably do that.

        And that is where most of their black budget money comes from...phantom satellites... : )

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          Re 'phantom satellites"
          All the ghost soldiers get paycheques, why not have an entire generation of ghost satellites?
          Buy some commercial satellite images of interesting nations and see what they look like.
          Find normal nations that kind of look the same. Fly a low plane and get some really hi res images of things that look a bit the same as the interesting nations for every day of the year.
          Some photoshop and its a decade of ghost satellite federal funding as the ghost satellites pass over the interesting
  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @03:06AM (#55899023)

    All we know about the satellite itself is that it was destined for a low-Earth orbit and built for the U.S. government.

    Well, it did achieve low-earth orbit... just somewhat lower than planned, and its tidally locked with the planet. But it's still orbiting once every 24 hours.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) *

      Well, it did achieve low-earth orbit... just somewhat lower than planned, and its tidally locked with the planet. But it's still orbiting once every 24 hours.

      If only we had a spacecraft that could maneuver close to it, grab it with a big arm, put it in the spacecraft's payload bay, and take it where it was supposed to go. That would be amazing.

      • And I wonder if they can put (or it already has) and arm in this thing [wikipedia.org]?

      • If only we had a spacecraft that could maneuver close to it, grab it with a big arm, put it in the spacecraft's payload bay, and take it where it was supposed to go. That would be amazing.

        We did but it turned out to be ludicrously expensive to operate, flew missions at a rate an order of magnitude less than it was projected to do, and had an annoying tendency to kill astronauts who rode in it.

        The Shuttle was and still is a shitty design, an example of what you get when too many compromises are made on the original design objectives. We'd have been far better off spending that money on uprated Saturn V's.

      • We used to have one, but it was a ridiculously overpriced government-run boondoggle that kept exploding. Honestly, it's just cheaper to launch a new satellite than send up a super expensive manned spacecraft that has to change orbits.
      • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
        Re "grab it with a big arm"
        Canada has a spare space arm in a museum.
      • I suspect the closest we can get is this [wikipedia.org].

    • There is no low Earth orbit where the satellite would orbit once every 24 hours. That is a geosynchronous orbit and they are very very high orbits. We would have noticed if the Falcon 9 had flown into a geosynchronous transfer orbit.
  • How uncertain? (Score:5, Informative)

    by rew ( 6140 ) <r.e.wolff@BitWizard.nl> on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @03:59AM (#55899137) Homepage

    "Government officials confirm the mission was lost".

    Now you might doubt the veracity of that statement and keep your tinfoil hat on, but it doesn't get more certain than that.

    This: "rumors are going around that" story is simply a few hours older than the "it has been confirmed that"....
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/technol... [www.cbc.ca]
    http://money.cnn.com/2018/01/0... [cnn.com]

    • Shocking. And I don't mean the satellite but whatever happened to CNN: autoplaying video commercials and enormous popover ads. Not going to visit there again...
    • From the CBC article:
      "The classified intelligence satellite, built by Northrop Grumman Corp, failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and is assumed to have broken up or plunged into the sea, said the two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity."

      This doesn't make sense. Stage 2 goes all the way to orbit (accepting SpaceX's assertion that Falcon worked entirely as planned). It only 'plunges into the sea' if they deliberately make a deorbit burn. (I assume that they do normally m

      • This doesn't make sense. Stage 2 goes all the way to orbit (accepting SpaceX's assertion that Falcon worked entirely as planned). It only 'plunges into the sea' if they deliberately make a deorbit burn.

        If you schedule a deorbit burn to occur after separation, but separation fails... where does the satellite end up?

        SpaceX is probably waiting for the government or Northrop to admit that the satellite is ash because the docking adapter wouldn't let go.

        Or maybe it released, but the satellite thrusters failed so it didn't move. When the Falcon deorbited, it would have either contained... or bumped... the unexpectedly close satellite.

      • The shots of the crowd were noticeably thinner, and even only about 25% of the workstations in the control center were occupied. The broadcasted video for stage 2 stopped after stage separation, so video for anything after that was not publicly broadcasted. I'm also going to assume that the number of empty chairs in the control center meant that much of the mission was being controlled somewhere else without cameras.

    • "Government officials confirm the mission was lost".

      Now you might doubt the veracity of that statement and keep your tinfoil hat on, but it doesn't get more certain than that.

      Well, I don't think it's necessarily tinfoil to wonder if official government statements about a secret project might be less than fully accurate.

    • In wonder if there's any overlap between the group of people that believe that "officials confirm our was lost", and those groups that don't believe official explanations for HAARP, Apollo, climate change.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Go and look in the ocean where the second stage hit the water.
    If you see a US or Russian Navy ship moored there, you know the mission is now an underwater one.

    Capcha: discard.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I say it all went well but they want everyone to think it failed. Oh wait, someone is knocking at the door. BRB........

  • by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Wednesday January 10, 2018 @07:33AM (#55899629) Journal

    One article specifically pointed blame at Northrop Grumman, stating that the mechanism that controlled the release of the payload from the upper stage was built and controlled by Northrop Grumman. Which is why SpaceX can state that on their end, everything performed perfectly.

    • This doesn't really make sense. The second stage appears to have functioned normally. An airline pilot flying over Africa actually took a picture of the stage performing its normal fuel dump. It does this prior to deorbiting into the Indian Ocean, after the normal 1 1/2 orbits. If there was a problem with the satellite releasing, they would have keep it in orbit a few more times to attempt to release it. Particularly since the second stage was still functioning properly and had enough fuel to require a fuel
      • by jae471 ( 1102461 )

        The second stage is autonomous. The current F9S2 does not have a long enough battery life to support extended duration missions. This is one reason why the current Falcon 9 cannot do a direct GEO launch -- it doesn't last long enough to do the circularization burn.

        Longer-endurance batteries are scheduled to fly something this year.

        • Not long term, but you think they would have given it another orbit or two for say, 90 more minutes, to try something.
  • They do this with "secret" payloads.
  • freaking what? Is it lost? Is it still up there doing it's thing? WHO FREAKING CARES? This is a non story.
  • I said launch, not lunch!
  • The airplanes obey the stable genius and don't fall from the sky (as he says) but gov. satellites don't?

  • "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now, reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally," company spokesman James Gleeson told Space.com via email.

    nominally: in name only; officially though perhaps not in reality.
  • ...rumors began swirling [...] that something had happened to Zuma.

    If only that were true for the other Zuma [wikipedia.org].

  • The satellite didn't deploy, or was "lost" is a fairly flimsy smokescreen, IMNSHO.

    What better way to get people to "breathe a collective sigh of relief" that another top-secret set of Big Brothers' Glasses got "dropped outside the optometrist".

    Is it just me, or are these ploys getting to be more and more obvious?

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