Back in January, an uncharacteristically secretive SpaceX Falcon 9 launch that was meant to ferry a classified billion dollar satellite into orbit apparently went wrong. Now it appears the fault may have been on Northrop Grumman, the company that built the satellite.
The payload, referred to as Zuma, failed to deploy properly once in orbit, and according to reports, re-entered the earth’s atmosphere alongside the rocket’s second stage, ultimately burning up or plummeting into the Indian Ocean. From the start, SpaceX reported that their Falcon 9 rocket performed exactly as expected and with no failures.
“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly,” Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, said in a statement to CNBC. “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 refused to answer any questions at all, citing the classified nature of the payload, and the Defense Department referred all questions back to SpaceX. Who again, claimed that their platform performed admirably while refusing to offer anything further. The Air Force did, at least, suggest that SpaceX was telling the truth.
“Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement.
The misdirection and apparent subterfuge associated with the Zuma mission after it was declared a failure prompted many to speculate that the mission hadn’t been a failure at all – but had been labeled as such only to prevent amateur and international organizations from tracking the location of the satellite after it was deployed in a region of low earth orbit that was considered public knowledge. The argument made some sense – how better to hide a secret spy satellite than to claim that it failed and simply burned up?
Two different expert panels comprised of government and aerospace experts have reached the same conclusion, however: the Zuma mission was indeed a failure, and it was Northrop Grumman’s fault.
The problem was apparently caused by payload adaptor failing to release the satellite from the Falcon 9’s second stage. Although these payload adaptors are traditionally provided by SpaceX, the adaptor used in this particular mission was heavily modified by Northrop Grumman, apparently as a part of an effort to reduce the transmission of vibrations through the rocket and into the satellite during launch.
That adaptor was reportedly tested on three separate occasions down here on earth, but failed to function when exposed to the microgravity of orbit. As a result, the Falcon 9 second stage went about its business, re-entering the atmosphere on schedule, all while still anchored to more than a billion dollars worth of secret defense technology.
Little is known about the Zuma payload that was lost, in fact, not even the government agency it was being launched for has been released, but experts have claimed that it must have been extremely fragile. That fragility is what prompted Northrop to modify the payload adapter to limit the abuse the satellite would take en route to orbit. Ironically, it was that effort to protect the platform that was its undoing.
This report means more bad news for Northrop Grumman, who just recently announced more delays in the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope mission that is slated to replace the aging Hubble. The project has seen repeated cost overruns and delays, and is now expected to be pushed back even further, likely not taking to the skies until mid-2020. As a result, NASA officials announced that they will begin maintaining stricter oversight of the project at Northrop facilities.
Feature image courtesy of SpaceX