Report: Zuma Payload a Total Loss

Falcon 9 first stage comes in for a landing after launching the Zuma payload. (Credit: SpaceX)

UPDATE: Here’s an outtake from a story in the Wall Street Journal:

Lawmakers and congressional staffers from the Senate and the House have been briefed about the botched mission, some of the officials said. 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, they said, 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.

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.


Here’s a report from CNBC saying the secret U.S. government Zuma satellite launched on Sunday was a total loss:

Dow Jones reported Monday evening that lawmakers had been briefed about the apparent destruction of the secretive payload — code-named Zuma — citing industry and government officials.

The payload was suspected to have burned up in the atmosphere after failing to separate perfectly from the upper part of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the report said.

According to Dow Jones, the absence of official word on the incident means that there could have been another chain of events.

SpaceX has said the Falcon 9 booster functioned nominally. Satellite builder Northrop Grumman has declined to comment on the classified spacecraft, which may have been worth billions of dollars. The identity of the government agency that ordered the satellite is unknown.

SpaceX said the Zuma launch was delayed from December due to a problem with the payload shroud. During the launch webcast on Sunday, the company said the payload shroud had separated as planned.

Read the full story.

  • duheagle

    It seems to have been the case that Northrop Grumman not only built the payload, but also the payload adapter and, in addition, did all the pre-launch payload prep themselves, including sealing the payload up in the fairing. SpaceX was handed, in essence, a black box – or, more colloquially, a pig in a poke.

  • Jeff2Space

    Except that this was a secret mission. So, SpaceX didn’t need to know the details of the payload, so they didn’t. Since Northrup Grumman built the adapter they surely had people with the clearance to know the details about how the satellite needed to be mounted and launched. It’s my understanding Northrup Grumman provided SpaceX with the payload already installed on the adapter.

    As for integration of the Falcon 9 and the Northrup Grumman payload adapter, that responsibility might have been shared, somewhat. I’m sure an accident investigation will determine all possible likely causes and have recommendations for both companies so this doesn’t happen in the future.

    But in terms of statistics, it was still a successful SpaceX launch since the payload was delivered to earth orbit. But this is also clearly a failed mission since the secret satellite was possibly dead in orbit from the start and almost certainly burned up on reentry .

  • Steve Ksiazek

    SpaceX didn’t need to know the purpose of the payload, but they certainly did need to know some details, such as how much it weighs and what orbit it is supposed to get inserted into. They can’t do mission planning without some details. For instance, how do they plan when to discard the payload fairing ? How do they interface to the customer’s payload adapter ? There are going to be some lessons learned here. You can’t just wave the sat failure away and say it was all the customer’s responsibility.

  • Jeff2Space

    The one that may have caused this failure would be “How do they interface to the customer’s payload adapter?” For that, they need information from Northrup Grumman, who built the payload adapter. If that’s where this whole thing went wrong, then the two companies will point the finger at each other.

    This is where things often go wrong in aerospace. You need to design hardware to interface to some other hardware you’re not allowed to have (top secret, proprietary, radioactive RTG, and etc.). So, how do you test the integration? Good question, good question…

    In fact, not 5 minutes ago one colleague of mine was reminiscing with another colleague about past failures. They were all integration problems where an engineer wasn’t allowed to actually have the thing he or she needed to interface with. Frustrating.