SpaceX’s Secret Satellite Mission May Have Failed. What Happened?

The Falcon 9 rocket launched at Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sunday, for the satellite mission known as Zuma.

On Sunday, SpaceX launched its first rocket of the year. During the company’s webcast of the liftoff, everything seemed to go without a hitch. The second stage of the rocket headed toward orbit as the booster returned to land at Cape Canaveral. But on Monday, word started spreading that something went very wrong with this highly classified mission, code-named “Zuma.”

Northrop Grumman Corporation built the satellite, and the customer was the United States government. But beyond that, we don’t know much. Zuma is presumed to be some sort of spy satellite. We don’t even know which federal agency hired Northrop Grumman to build it.

The launch was originally scheduled for November, but was postponed for additional analysis of the nose cone that protects the payload during its passage through the atmosphere. During the webcast, the SpaceX commentator indicated that the nose cone was jettisoned properly.

Neither SpaceX nor Northrop Grumman nor anyone else confirmed successful deployment of Zuma.

On Monday, Peter B. de Selding, editor of SpaceIntelReport wrote on Twitter:

Ars Technica, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal followed with stories that reported that the satellite had been lost. The Verge examined what was and was not known.

Zuma apparently never separated from the second stage and plunged back to Earth.

Not necessarily. According to an article in Wired last November, Northrop Grumman not only built Zuma but also provided the part that connected the satellite to the rocket known as the payload adapter. For most launches, SpaceX provides the payload adapter.

On Tuesday morning, SpaceX released a statement from Gwynne Shotwell, the company president, which emphatically stated that the company saw nothing that indicated SpaceX was at fault:

For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.

Northrop Grumman has publicly said only, “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”

“I can’t conclude anything definitely,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who avidly tracks the comings and goings of space objects. “We’re going on rumors and conflicting statements.”

Dr. McDowell notes that the satellite appears to have made it to orbit — an entry for Zuma appears at Space-Track.org, a database of objects in orbit.

In addition, two hours, 15 minutes after launch, observers reported seeing something over East Africa that appeared to be the second stage of the Falcon 9 just before it dropped out of orbit. (Second stages of rockets are typically steered downward to burn up in the atmosphere so that they do not add to the junk circling Earth.)

“Which is about the right time for a de-orbit,” Dr. McDowell said. But if Zuma had never separated from the second stage, it would have been also dragged to its demise.

SpaceX and Zuma’s operators likely knew that the satellite was still attached to the rocket’s second stage, which would raise the question of why they did not delay the de-orbit and try to fix the problem.

Perhaps there was no way to override the preprogrammed de-orbit burn, Dr. McDowell said. Or the rocket did not pass over enough radio dishes for a new command to be sent. Alternatively, the malfunction may have damaged the communications hardware.

Dr. McDowell said it would be a week before the projected orbit of Zuma would pass over amateur satellite watchers.

SpaceX has suffered two Falcon 9 failures. During a launch for NASA of cargo headed to the International Space Station in 2015, a strut within the second stage snapped, leading to the destruction of the rocket after it blasted off. Fifteen months later, during fueling for an engine test at the launchpad, a failure within a liquid oxygen tank led to an explosion and loss of a $200 million satellite.

The company recovered with 18 successful launches in 2017.

In the early years of SpaceX, the first three launches of its much smaller Falcon 1 rocket failed.

Until now, SpaceX has not had a situation where a satellite reached orbit but failed to separate from the rocket.

Ms. Shotwell says no. In her Tuesday statement, she said:

Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.

Good question.

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