So what really happened with SpaceX's Zuma satellite?

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Jan 11, 2018, 10:15 AM EST

When SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the super-classified Zuma satellite into space for an undisclosed government agency, it looked as if the mysterious cargo had set off on its mission—so why did it end up drowning instead of floating into orbit?

The Verge reports that what SpaceX kept in the dark during its live webcast of the launch could shed light on what factored into the mission’s demise. What you didn’t see if you were tuning in that night was the separation of the nose cone (which protects the satellite) and the deployment of the satellite itself. The Falcon 9 in question landed its first stage successfully after launch, so both Elon Musk and government officials thought they could breathe—and were even tweeting a successful launch—until Zuma vanished.

The first suspicions of something going wrong surfaced when neither SpaceX nor Zuma manufacturer Northrop Grumman confirmed the launch really had succeeded after those initial tweets of excitement. It doesn’t help that most people involved in this mission aren’t willing to talk because of its X-Files-level secrecy.

Conflicting reports on the internet don’t really help either, with Bloomberg saying that Zuma was doomed because of a defective upper stage while the Wall Street Journal insists the satellite rode the rocket without wandering away on its own before it was supposed to.

SpaceX reps still insist there was nothing off about the rocket.

“We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally,” a SpaceX spokesperson exclusively told The Verge. So the rocket supposedly killed it when it came to the tasks it had to perform, including launch, separation of its first and second stage, and sending Zuma into orbit. This would also mean that the satellite separated from the rocket as planned.

Again, The Wall Street Journal has a counter to that, claiming the satellite plunged right back into Earth’s atmosphere because it failed to detach from the upper part of the Falcon 9. What makes all this even more confusing is that U.S. Strategic Command swore it spotted an object that couldn’t be anything but Zuma (which ended up crashing into the Indian Ocean) in orbit. Its Space Surveillance Network of telescopes and ground-based radars can’t lie. What remains unknown is whether whatever the SSN’s telescopic eye caught sight of was really Zuma.


Credit: SpaceX

But wait. SpaceX ships are usually outfitted with SpaceX hardware, except that in this case, Northrop Grumman insisted on using its own payload adapter, which would have remained stuck to the satellite if it failed. No comment from Northrop Grumman on the issue.

So was this a rocket fail or a satellite fail? At this point, that’s classified.

(via The Verge)


SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell has confirmed that after an exhaustive review of all data, Falcon 9 was functioning correctly during the launch. 

"If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately," said Shotwell. "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 will be running through a static fire on launchpad LC-39A later this week before it takes off on its maiden flight. SpaceX also has a Falcon 9 launch on deck for SES and the Luxembourg government in several weeks.

No further comment is possible due to the classified nature of the payload.