SpaceX's launch of the Zuma satellite on 8 January was interesting, and not
just because of the ongoing saga of whether it failed or not (see a
The odd 50-degree orbital inclination is another element that made this
launch interesting (see discussion in
my pre-launch post here: sightings of the Falcon 9 Upper Stage over Sudan
after launch later confirmed this orbital inclination).
New ideas started to form post-launch after the Falcon 9 sightings from
Sudan made me realize that while it indeed was launched into a 50-degree
inclined orbit, the orbital altitude (900-1000 km apogee) was higher than I
initially expected, making a proposed link to USA 276 unlikely.
The report pitted
several radar sat constellation configurations against each other, but all
of them assumes the satellites being in a 1000 km high, 53 degrees
inclination orbit. That's very close to the current search estimation of
ZUMA's orbit by
I had just been looking into the coverage of the Zuma orbit, and it lines up
with content in that report.
The map below is a ground coverage map of Zuma, would it have been alive and
well. One of the uses of a ~50 degree inclined ~1000 km altitude Space Based
Radar satellite mentioned in the report, is for shipping surveillance.
Indeed, a satellite in a Zuma-like orbit would basically cover all Ocean
surfaces, except for the high Arctic and Antarctic, which are not that
interesting for the purpose discussed below (moreover, the Arctic is
extensively covered by groundbased and airborne radar).
A (Radar) satellite in this kind of orbit therefore would be very useful to
keep track of illicit shipping movements on the High Seas.
Think stuff like embargo-runners, e.g. embargo-breaking shipments of
coal and oil to for example North Korea, illegal weapons exports from
North Korea, oil exports from Syria, illicit weapons transports to the
Middle East, and human trafficking as well as drugs shipments.
Ships engaged in such illegal activities
sometimes turn off their transponder, making it harder to track their
whereabouts once out of sight of landbased shipping radar (see also the story
about one particular embargo-breaking ship
here). The classified US NOSS duo ELINT satellites and similar Chinese
Yaogan triplets are meant to track ships from passive radiosignal crosslocation,
but when a ship displays strict radio silence, these systems will not detect
them either. But Space-Based Radar will.
Embargoes have become an important geopolitical tool when outright war is deemed
not an alternative. We currently see embargoes enforced with regard to for
example Syria and North Korea. Means to enforce embargoes including detecting
and stopping potential embargo violations therefore have become important. Human
trafficking and drugs trafficking are growing geopolitical problems as well.
So was Zuma meant to be an (experimental, i.e. a technology demonstrator)
version of such a Space Based Radar for Ocean shipping surveillance? It is an
What might argue against it is the extreme secrecy surrounding the launch. Very
few details were made public about the Zuma payload, the Agency operating it was
not disclosed, and the launch was announced very late.
For all of this, explanations can be sought, but that admittedly all is "special
pleading". For example, maybe the secrecy is there because the mission involves
cutting edge experimental Radar technology. Or the secrecy could simply be the
result of the "secrecy cult" in some parts of the US Government going over the
top. Or it could point to operation by an Agency that wants to keep this
operation on the down low - e.g. the CIA. And I can think of a few more - much
more outlandish, which is why I won't mention them here - potential reasons.
We have seen this kind of secrecy before with
(and its later sister ship CLIO), with
Prowler, and more recently with
All of these were experimental satellites doing unusual things: PAN roved
between, snug up to and eavesdropped on commercial geostationary satellite
telephony satellites. Prowler was an experiment for covertly inspecting other
geostationary satellites on-orbit. And USA 276 remains mysterious but a series
of very close encounters to the International Space Station suggest it might be
a technology demonstrator for observing rendez-vous manoeuvres in space.
Zuma (the more so now it might have failed) also strongly brings the infamous
satellite to mind, although there we do know that it was a satellite for the NRO,
and likely an experimental radar satellite [edit: see added note 2 below].
Nevermind what Zuma really was meant to be, and who was to operate it: the
message to take home is that High Seas shipping surveillance is a potential and
viable role to keep in mind for any future satellite launched in a ~1000 km
altitude, ~50 degree inclined orbit.
Added note 2,12 January 2018:
This article suggests Zuma might be an electro-optical/SAR hybrid and a
follow-on to the infamous USA 193:
"Second, the Northrop Grumman satellite may be a follow-on to another
failed satellite US 193. [...] ...., a source with direct knowledge of the
program told me it was a blend of radar and electro-optical and would not
provide any more detail than that. A source with wide knowledge of classified
space programs has told me that the Northrop Grumman-built Zuma may be the
next iteration of this. Both were apparently experimental satellites, in that
they were not part of a large constellation of similar satellites."
Such a spacecraft would be well suited for the purpose indicated in this blog