The Wall Street Journal has an update into the failed launch of the classified Zuma payload in January. The spacecraft was launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.
Government and industry experts have tentatively concluded that engineering and testing errors by Northrop Grumman Corp. caused a U.S. spy satellite to plummet into the ocean shortly after a January launch, according to people familiar with the details.
…two separate teams of federal and industry investigators have pinpointed reasons for the high-profile loss to problems with a Northrop-modified part—called a payload adapter — that failed to operate properly in space….
The device, purchased from a subcontractor, was significantly modified and then successfully tested three times on the ground by Northrop Grumman, according to one person familiar with the process. But upon reaching orbit, this person said, the adapter didn’t uncouple the satellite from the rocket in zero-gravity conditions.
Sensors on board failed to immediately report what happened, this person said, so officials tracking the launch weren’t aware of the major malfunction until the satellite was dragged back into the atmosphere by the returning second stage. The satellite ultimately broke free but by then had dropped to an altitude that was too low for a rescue.
The world’s launch providers have been extremely busy in the first quarter of 2018, with 31 orbital launches thus far. This is more than one third of the 90 launches conducted last year.
China leads the pack with 10 successful launches. The United States is close behind with a total of nine launches with one failure. The tenth American launch is scheduled for Monday afternoon from Florida.
In the wake of the apparently unsuccessful launch of the secret Zuma payload, there is still some confusion about what exactly happened and who is to blame.
The top secret satellite for an unidentified government agency is believed to have burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere after failing to separate from the second stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster.
However, SpaceX officials say that the Falcon 9 booster performed exactly as planned, so the company is not responsible for any failure that might have occurred.
That would appear to point the finger at Northrop Grumman, which provided the satellite and the adapter that connected it to booster. The company had declined to comment, saying it doesn’t comment on classified missions.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has issued a statement concerning the Falcon 9 launch of the classified Zuma payload, which reports say was lost:
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.
Reports indicate that the satellite’s builder, Northrop Grumman, provided its own payload adapter. So, if the satellite failed to separate from the second stage as reports indicate, the problem lay with the adapter and not the Falcon 9.
The Joint Space Operations Center did enter an object from the launch into its master catalog. That would indicate the satellite did enter orbit; however, it might not still be in orbit.
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.
SpaceX launched a secret U.S. military satellite code named Zuma into space on Sunday evening. The company successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 back at Cape Canaveral.
However, exactly what happened to the mysterious satellite remains a mystery nearly 24 hours after the launch. SpaceX says an analysis of data indicate the Falcon 9’s second stage performed nominally.
However, there are unconfirmed rumors that the satellite was lost. Rumors include the spacecraft being dead on orbit after separation from Falcon 9’s second stage, or re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere still attached to the stage.
Northrop Grumman, which built the spacecraft, is not commenting on the flight. The identity of the government agency the spacecraft was built for is not known. So, nobody from the government has confirmed whether the launch succeeded or not.
Meanwhile, SpaceX rolled out the first Falcon Heavy booster to Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center today. The company plans to conduct a brief static test of the rocket’s 27 first-stage engines for the first time. The rocket is set to make its maiden flight later this month from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 is set to launch the mysterious Zuma payload on Friday, Jan. 5, from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The two-hour launch window opens at 8 p.m. EST (0100 GMT on Saturday, Jan. 6).
Zuma is a code name for a satellite that Northrop Grumman built for an unidentified U.S. government agency. Nothing else is known about the payload.
SpaceX has slipped the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy booster to January. The rocket, whose first stage is composed of three Falcon 9 cores with 27 engines, will lift off from Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The flight will be preceded by a hold-down test on the launch pad in which all 27 first stage engines will be fired.
The launch of an Orbital ATK Antares rocket on Saturday morning will be the first of four launches planned over the next five days.
The Antares will launch a Cygnus resupply ship to the International Space Station. It is the second flight of the re-engineered Antares booster, which includes two Russian-made RD-181 engines in its first stage. Launch time is set for 7:37 a.m. EST (1237 GMT) from Wallops Island in Virginia. NASA TV will provide launch coverage.
ULA’s Delta II booster will launch NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System 1 (JPSS-1) weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Tuesday, Nov. 14. The launch window extends from 1:47:03 to 1:48:05 a.m. PST (4:47:03-4:48:05 a.m. EST or 0947:03-0948:05 GMT). NASA TV will provide launch coverage. It will be the penultimate flight of the venerable Delta II rocket.
SpaceX is scheduled to launch the mysterious Zuma payload on Wednesday, Nov. 15 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. government, there are no other details about the spacecraft. The launch window extends from 8:00 to 10 p.m. EST (0100-0300 GMT on Nov. 16). It’s not clear whether SpaceX will webcast the flight.
China will launch the Fengyun 3D weather satellite into polar orbit aboard a Long March 4C booster from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center on Wednesday, Nov. 15. The launch window is not known.
Federal regulatory filings indicate SpaceX plans to launch a mysterious payload as early as Nov. 10 in a previously-undisclosed mission.
It is unusual for such a mission to remain secret so close to launch, and there has been no public claim of ownership for the payload — codenamed Zuma — from any government or commercial institution.
SpaceX did not respond to questions on the mission Saturday, but an application submitted by the launch company to the Federal Communications Commission says the flight will use a Falcon 9 booster launched from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The existence of the mission was first reported on NASASpaceflight.com Saturday, but the FCC filings are public record….
Two filings concern the secretive launch next month, one for the Falcon 9’s liftoff and climb into orbit from Florida’s Space Coast, and another for the first stage booster’s planned return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for refurbishment and reuse.
SpaceX has successfully launched Falcon 9 a total of 15 times in 2017. Spaceflightnow.com’s launch schedule shows that SpaceX has five more flights scheduled for this year, not including the Zuma mission. Below is the schedule with the Zuma flight included.