SpaceX had been behind several “wow, this is the future” moments in recent years, but it didn’t get there without a few failures. SpaceX has lost rockets in flight and on the launchpad, but there’s one failure for which it is not to blame. According to a new government report, it was not SpaceX’s fault that an expensive top-secret spy satellite failed to reach orbit earlier this year. The blame lies with aerospace firm and long-time government contractor Northrop Grumman.
We don’t know a great deal about the Zuma satellite. All we can say for certain is that the government had some secret plans for the device, but it didn’t reach orbit. Following the Jan. 7 launch, skywatchers were unable to locate the satellite in orbit. The government later confirmed the spacecraft had been lost. There was much finger-pointing at first, but SpaceX contended that its Falcon 9 rocket performed flawlessly. The new analysis apparently backs that up.
The secret spy satellite was designed and constructed by Northrop Grumman, and some estimates peg the total cost somewhere above $3 billion. The satellite was destined for low-Earth orbit, which is not a problematic launch for SpaceX. It launches (and lands) rockets when deploying payloads in low-Earth orbit all the time.
In its report, the government points to a cause many in the aerospace industry suspected back in January: a faulty payload adapter. Like the satellite, that adapter was designed and produced by Northrop Grumman. The adapter was mounted to the top of SpaceX’s rocket and was supposed to release Zuma into space once it reached the correct location. That apparently didn’t happen.
Zuma reportedly features sensitive equipment that could have been damaged by vibration, so Northrop Grumman designed the adapter to release very gently from the rocket. It sounds like that release was a bit too gentle because the satellite remained stuck to the second stage. The company reportedly tested the payload adapter three times on Earth, but it didn’t perform as intended in freefall. The rocket dragged the satellite down into the atmosphere, causing it to break up.
So, SpaceX is probably in the clear, but Northrop Grumman could be facing more scrutiny. In addition to the loss of Zuma, the company has fallen far behind on completion of the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s the primary contractor, and potential design issues recently pushed the satellite’s launch back yet again to mid-2020.
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