On Sunday night, SpaceX launched a classified payload known only as “Zuma” for the US government. But once in space, something went wrong. Here’s what we know so far.
What is Zuma?
It was a government satellite or spacecraft built by Northrop Grumman, which contracted with SpaceX to launch it into low-Earth orbit. By various accounts, this was a hugely valuable asset, potentially worth a billion dollars or more. (SpaceX founder Elon Musk reportedly told some of his employees it was the most important thing the company had ever launched). There has also been a huge amount of secrecy around the launch, even more so than with typical national security payloads, to the point that the government agency paying for and using it have not been disclosed.
The Zuma launch appeared nominal on Sunday night, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage returned to a land-based landing site on schedule. However, on Monday, as initially reported by Ars and then other publications, there was a problem with the Zuma spacecraft. Our initial, unconfirmed information suggests that Zuma never fully separated from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and that it burned up during the reentry to Earth’s atmosphere.
Wait, isn’t Zuma in the satellite catalog?
It is, listed under “USA 280,” without any pertinent details. However, as noted by satellite expert Jonathan McDowell, this does not necessarily mean the object is still in orbit or that it separated from the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. Rather, the upper stage was intended to make at least one orbit before falling back to Earth as planned. It is possible that Zuma never separated from the upper stage, made 1.5 orbits or so and “earned” a catalog entry, and then fell back to Earth with the second stage.
But we don’t know for sure?
No, we don’t. SpaceX has only said that its rocket performed nominally throughout the launch. Northrop Grumman declined to comment. The US military has offered no substantial information. However according to sources familiar with congressional briefings, the mission did indeed fail. This information may not be fully publicly confirmed until some future congressional hearing.
Is SpaceX to blame, then?
Perhaps not. “As of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally,” a company spokesperson told Ars. It is important to note that the payload adapter, which connected the Zuma payload and its fairing to the rest of the rocket, was supplied by Northrop Grumman, rather than by SpaceX. If there was some kind of separation problem, the fault may not lie with SpaceX, but rather Northrop Grumman.
So we’re playing a blame game?
It seems so. According to a source familiar with discussions on Capitol Hill, both SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are blaming each other for the failure. At this point, the government appears to not have determined who is at fault, but clearly this will be a consequence-filled decision for one or both of these companies in the business of providing the government with launch and satellite services.
What is at stake?
For taxpayers, there’s the loss of an asset worth a billion dollars or more.
For SpaceX, this was just the third launch for the US military, at a time when the company is seeking more lucrative launch contracts for spy and communications satellites. Although it has cut launch prices dramatically around the world, critics of SpaceX are constantly whispering that the company is unreliable even though it had a sterling launch record in 2017 of 18 launches and 18 successes.
For Northrop Grumman, there could be a hit to its satellite business.
What happens now?
“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,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said in a statement Tuesday morning. “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.”
Meanwhile, the government will investigate the cause of the accident. It will likely report those findings during classified meetings of congressional committees and to the White House. At that point the results of the investigation should leak out to the media, with a redacted report potentially released to the public at a later date.