SpaceX’s Secret Satellite Mission May Have Failed. What Happened?

SpaceX’s Secret Satellite Mission May Have Failed. What Happened?

On Tuesday morning, SpaceX released a statement from Gwynne Shotwell, the company president, which emphatically stated that the company saw nothing that indicated SpaceX was at fault:

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.

What does Northrop Grumman say happened?

Northrop Grumman has publicly said only, “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”

What’s the speculation?

“I can’t conclude anything definitely,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who avidly tracks the comings and goings of space objects. “We’re going on rumors and conflicting statements.”

Dr. McDowell notes that the satellite appears to have made it to orbit — an entry for Zuma appears at Space-Track.org, a database of objects in orbit.

In addition, two hours, 15 minutes after launch, observers reported seeing something over East Africa that appeared to be the second stage of the Falcon 9 just before it dropped out of orbit. (Second stages of rockets are typically steered downward to burn up in the atmosphere so that they do not add to the junk circling Earth.)

“Which is about the right time for a de-orbit,” Dr. McDowell said. But if Zuma had never separated from the second stage, it would have been also dragged to its demise.

SpaceX and Zuma’s operators likely knew that the satellite was still attached to the rocket’s second stage, which would raise the question of why they did not delay the de-orbit and try to fix the problem.

Perhaps there was no way to override the preprogrammed de-orbit burn, Dr. McDowell said. Or the rocket did not pass over enough radio dishes for a new command to be sent. Alternatively, the malfunction may have damaged the communications hardware.

Dr. McDowell said it would be a week before the projected orbit of Zuma would pass over amateur satellite watchers.

Is this anything like earlier SpaceX launch failures?

SpaceX has suffered two Falcon 9 failures. During a launch for NASA of cargo headed to the International Space Station in 2015, a strut within the second stage snapped, leading to the destruction of the rocket after it blasted off. Fifteen months later, during fueling for an engine test at the launchpad, a failure within a liquid oxygen tank led to an explosion and loss of a $200 million satellite.

The company recovered with 18 successful launches in 2017.

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