- Zuma, a top-secret government payload, most likely crashed to Earth after its launch aboard a SpaceX rocket on Sunday night, multiple news outlets reported.
- But SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, says its rocket performed correctly.
- The failure may trace back to an adapter that connected the satellite to the rocket, Ars Technica reported.
- SpaceX typically supplies such an adapter, but Northrop Grumman, which built the secret satellite, did so this time, that report says.
A top-secret government mission launched by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by the tech mogul Elon Musk, may have failed on Sunday night.
Zuma, the code name of the clandestine payload – thought to be a next-generation spy or communications satellite – most likely broke apart and crashed into the ocean after the satellite failed to disconnect from the Falcon 9 rocket, The Wall Street Journal, NBC, and other outlets reported.
However, SpaceX seems to be distancing itself from the notion that it had a role in any such failure.
“After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement to Business Insider. “If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately.”
Shotwell added: “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.”
Zuma may have cost billions of US taxpayer dollars to design, build, and certify, according to The Journal. A standard Falcon 9 rocket launch costs about $62 million, and this was SpaceX’s third national-security launch.
The Zuma mission was supposed to launch in mid-November, but SpaceX delayed it after examining data from a Falcon 9 fairing – or protective nosecone – gathered during the test of a different customer’s rocket.
What brought Zuma’s reported doom?
The secretive nature of the Zuma mission makes reliable details difficult to come by or verify.
However, the key part connecting the Zuma payload to the rocket that pops off a satellite once it’s reached the correct altitude wasn’t made by SpaceX.
“The payload adapter, which connected the Zuma payload and its fairing to the rest of the rocket, was supplied by Northrop Grumman,” Eric Berger, Ars Technica’s senior space editor, wrote on Tuesday. “If there was some kind of separation problem, the fault may not lie with SpaceX, but rather Northrop Grumman.”
That detail is significant, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“It matters for future SpaceX customers who would want to know if SpaceX’s payload adapters were unreliable,” McDowell tweeted Monday night.
Northrop Grumman, the company that built the Zuma payload, told Business Insider in November that after the US government tasked it with picking a launch company, it chose SpaceX.
But on Tuesday, a Northrop Grumman spokesman, Lon Rains, declined to answer questions about the mission, including about the failure or success of its launch, its cost, and the identity of the government customer.
“This is a classified mission,” he said. “We cannot comment on a classified mission.”
Below is Shotwell’s full statement about Zuma’s reported failure:
“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.
“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.”
In short, SpaceX appears to be shrugging its shoulders as it prepares to launch yet another Falcon 9 rocket and its first Mars-capable rocket, Falcon Heavy – a launch vehicle essentially three times as powerful as a Falcon 9.
Berger reports that an investigation into the Zuma mission is underway amid both companies’ blaming each other for the failure, and that a redacted report could ultimately be made public.