On Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. EST, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the secretive Zuma satellite into space aboard its Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral. However, less than a day later, the WSJ reports that the secretive spacecraft built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. government military industrial complex, and worth billions “is presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit.”
Still no response from @northrop Grumman, the manufacturer of the Zuma satellite. They contracted the launch for a still-unknown government agency or branch of the military.
— Robin Seemangal (@nova_road) 8 January 2018
Peter B. de Selding, a reporter for Space Intel Report, first broke the story just after at 4:00 p.m. EST on Monday. In a tweet, his sources suggested that the “Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9.”
Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9, sources say. Info blackout renders any conclusion – launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw. pic.twitter.com/KggCGNC5Si
— Peter B. de Selding (@pbdes) 8 January 2018
According to the WSJ, “lawmakers and congressional staffers from the Senate and the House have been briefed about the botched mission.” Meanwhile, the secret payload—code-named Zuma and launched from Florida on board a Falcon 9 rocket—is believed to have plummeted back into the atmosphere because it didn’t separate as planned from the upper part of the rocket.
Once the engine powering the rocket’s expendable second stage stops firing, whatever it is carrying is supposed to separate and proceed on its own trajectory. If a satellite isn’t set free at the right time or is damaged upon release, it can be dragged back toward earth.
It isn’t clear what job the satellite was intended to perform, or even which U.S. agency contracted for the satellite. As usual for classified launches, the information released by SpaceX before liftoff was bereft of details about the payload. A video broadcast Sunday night narrated by a SpaceX official didn’t provide any hint of problems, though the feed ended before the planned deployment of the satellite.
The WSJ admits that the lack of details about what occurred means that some possible alternate sequence of events other than a failed separation may have been the culprit. And since this is another Musk project/failure, which means the eccentric billionaire will certainly not be tweeting up a storm explaining what went wrong, we may not know the exact reason for the failure for some time.
As of Monday night, nearly 24 hours after the launch, uncertainty surrounded both the mission and the fate of the satellite, the WSJ reports. Notably, the Pentagon’s Strategic Command, which keeps track of all commercial, scientific and national-security satellites along with space debris, hadn’t updated its catalog of objects to reflect a new satellite circling the planet.
Neither Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the satellite, nor SpaceX, as Elon Musk’s space-transportation company is called, has shed light on what happened.
A Northrop Grumman spokesman said, “We cannot comment on classified missions.”
A SpaceX spokesman said: “We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.” That terminology typically indicates that the rocket’s engines and navigation systems operated without glitches. The spokesman declined to elaborate.
What we do know, is that the secretive spy satellite was worth “billions”, which makes this the second billion-dollar satellite Musk has managed to lose up in two years; Facebook’s internet satellite was strapped on top of a Falcon 9 rocket, which it spontaneously blew up on the launch pad in September 2016.
The failure could be a major setback for SpaceX, since government contracts can tend to be extremely lucrative and taxpayers will now demand alternatives to the Musk venture. Further, the company faces fierce competition for ULA, operated by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who will kick off its 2018 launch schedule with a Wednesday flight.
The failure also comes at a very sensitive time for SpaceX: Musk’s closely held company has projected ramping up its overall launch rate to more than 25 missions in 2018, from 18 in 2017, and is scheduled to start ferrying U.S. astronauts to the international space station before the end of the year.
Good luck to them all, because while Musk is certainly best known for his success, we can now add one more failure to the list.