Tag Archives: ‘Zuma’

SpaceX Wasn’t Responsible for Loss of Secret Zuma Satellite

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SpaceX had been behind several “wow, this is the future” moments in recent years, but it didn’t get there without a few failures. SpaceX has lost rockets in flight and on the launchpad, but there’s one failure for which it is not to blame. According to a new government report, it was not SpaceX’s fault that an expensive top-secret spy satellite failed to reach orbit earlier this year. The blame lies with aerospace firm and long-time government contractor Northrop Grumman.

We don’t know a great deal about the Zuma satellite. All we can say for certain is that the government had some secret plans for the device, but it didn’t reach orbit. Following the Jan. 7 launch, skywatchers were unable to locate the satellite in orbit. The government later confirmed the spacecraft had been lost. There was much finger-pointing at first, but SpaceX contended that its Falcon 9 rocket performed flawlessly. The new analysis apparently backs that up.

The secret spy satellite was designed and constructed by Northrop Grumman, and some estimates peg the total cost somewhere above $ 3 billion. The satellite was destined for low-Earth orbit, which is not a problematic launch for SpaceX. It launches (and lands) rockets when deploying payloads in low-Earth orbit all the time.

In its report, the government points to a cause many in the aerospace industry suspected back in January:  a faulty payload adapter. Like the satellite, that adapter was designed and produced by Northrop Grumman. The adapter was mounted to the top of SpaceX’s rocket and was supposed to release Zuma into space once it reached the correct location. That apparently didn’t happen.

Falcon 9 landing after Zuma launch.

Zuma reportedly features sensitive equipment that could have been damaged by vibration, so Northrop Grumman designed the adapter to release very gently from the rocket. It sounds like that release was a bit too gentle because the satellite remained stuck to the second stage. The company reportedly tested the payload adapter three times on Earth, but it didn’t perform as intended in freefall. The rocket dragged the satellite down into the atmosphere, causing it to break up.

So, SpaceX is probably in the clear, but Northrop Grumman could be facing more scrutiny. In addition to the loss of Zuma, the company has fallen far behind on completion of the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s the primary contractor, and potential design issues recently pushed the satellite’s launch back yet again to mid-2020.

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Top-Secret ‘Zuma’ Satellite Launched by SpaceX May Have Been Lost

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SpaceX usually provides ample details on its launch schedule and the cargo it carries into space. That’s not the case when its cargo is of the top secret variety, and that can leave us guessing about mission details. The recent “Zuma” launch appeared to go off without a hitch, but now there’s reason to think the US spy satellite might have been destroyed before going into operation.

The Falcon 9 carrying this mysterious payload was launched on January 7th from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. As with all recent SpaceX Falcon 9 launches, the company successfully landed the first stage booster back on land for refurbishment and reuse. That part all went fine, and Elon Musk even shared a long-exposure image showing the rocket’s launch and subsequent landing. If new reports are to be believed, things went sideways after that.

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage vehicle, so the payload was still on its way into orbit when the first stage came back down. All we really know for certain is that the Zuma satellite, built by Northrop Grumman, was destined for low-Earth orbit. That’s fairly simple as space launches go. Sources who have spoken confidentially to news outlets suggest the satellite failed to decouple from the second stage, leading to it either breaking up in the atmosphere or crashing into the ocean. SpaceX built the second stage, obviously, and Northrop Grumman built the coupling mechanism for Zuma. 

Northrop Grumman has refused to comment on the multibillion-dollar satellite, which was a highly secretive project for both companies. Even past SpaceX national security payloads pale in comparison to Zuma — we don’t know which government agency was set to use the satellite, let alone what its function was.

Falcon 9 landing after Zuma launch.

SpaceX refused to comment on the fate of Zuma, which isn’t surprising given the super-secret nature of the launch. However, it said the Falcon 9 “performed nominally.” That could indicate the loss of Zuma had to do with Northrop Grumman’s adapter design rather than a failure of SpaceX’s vehicle. This could also be a tricky way of saying the Falcon 9 booster itself worked well, but maybe something went wrong mechanically with the second stage. The government is reportedly still hashing out the details to determine who was at fault. We might never learn who catches the blame, but we may be able to guess if either SpaceX or Northrop Grumman lose a lot of government business in the near future.

SpaceX is continuing on normally for now. It’s preparing several new flights in the coming weeks, including a Falcon Heavy demonstration launch that will take Elon Musk’s personal Tesla into space.

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