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The agency has long hoped to develop a constellation of low Earth orbiting satellites as a cueing tool for its ground-based radars and targeting systems. MDA officials have said repeatedly in recent months they want to make greater use of space.
Northrop Grumman’s own projections show the MDA could provide global protection with 10 satellites, but that the agency could take advantage of more localized protection with fewer satellites, said Randy Weidenheimer, the company’s director of advanced missile defense and warning programs. The analysis is considering both regional and homeland defense mission.
The analysis of alternatives the MDA and the Pentagon are conducting also would consider the agency’s use of hosted payloads, government and industry officials said. The MDA requested funds this year for the Spacebased Kill Assessment program in which space-based sensors would verify whether incoming missiles have been destroyed by defensive interceptors and thus no longer pose a threat. The program, first disclosed in the MDA’s 2016 budget request, appears to represent the agency’s first known foray into commercially hosted payloads, whereby organizations fly dedicated instruments aboard commercial satellites.
But as the debate about the apparent loss of Zuma continues, there’s another question: just what was Zuma anyway? Speculation has focused on some kind of experimental radar imaging satellite, along the lines of USA 193—another mission that failed after reaching orbit—based on sources in the intelligence community and the orbit the spacecraft was being launched into. “But let’s be honest. None of us really knows at this stage,” cautioned one account.
And, for what it’s worth, the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates other radar imaging satellites, appears to be distancing itself from Zuma. After the launch Friday of a classified payload on a ULA Delta IV, a launch designed NROL-47 and also thought to be a radar imaging satellite, NRO tweeted that the launch was “the first of two planned NRO launches for 2018.” In other words, it wasn’t counting Zuma as an NRO mission. And so the mystery continues.