On Sunday, September 7th at 8PM Eastern, the Elon Musk-founded private spaceflight company SpaceX launched a clandestine military payload atop its Falcon 9 rocket. Built by aerospace manufacturer Northrop Grumman for a still-unknown branch of the Government and code-named Zuma, the secretive spacecraft was lofted to an unknown destination in low-Earth orbit.
But according to reports, Zuma may either be “dead in orbit” or may have burned up after being separated from the Falcon 9. The question, along with what exactly happened, is who is to blame? SpaceX or Northrop Grumman?
A reporter from Space Intel Report tweeted about the incident yesterday afternoon. Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal all ran stories with conflicting reports from unnamed Government and Industry officials.
Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9, sources say. Info blackout renders any conclusion – launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw. pic.twitter.com/KggCGNC5Si
— Peter B. de Selding (@pbdes) January 8, 2018
Essentially, anonymous sources in the WSJ claim that the failure was due to an improper deployment of Zuma by the Falcon 9. But, what was not mentioned is that Northrop Grumman provided the payload adapter––so if it turns out that a faulty deployment was the cause, Northrop is responsible for the failure.
Regardless, the blame was clearly being put on SpaceX by anonymous sources with agendas. In a first statement of defense, a SpaceX spokesperson said the following:
“We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.” This means the Falcon 9 did the job it was supposed to correctly.
Throughout Monday, clues were circulated online. A photograph taken by an airline pilot over Africa that shows the Falcon 9’s second stage (the upper-part of the rocket that houses the payload) completing a re-entry burn around 2 hours and 15 minutes after launch. This should indicate that everything went normal or in space terms “nominally” on SpaceX’s part.
This is the image taken by Dutch pilot Peter Horstink, from his aircraft over Khartoum near 3:15 UT, 2h 15m after launch.
This is probably the Falcon 9 venting fuel.#Zuma pic.twitter.com/EEsl7e1sQP
— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) January 8, 2018
A document posted online also shows that the Air Force Strategic Command added Zuma to their satellite tracking database after launch. But that could mean the spacecraft did a single orbit before failing or vanishing.
Seeing Bloomberg and WSJ reporting that US military didn’t track a new satellite on Sunday (i.e. Zuma) but there’s clearly a new entry in Space Command-operated Space Track. pic.twitter.com/yQKgtg7gI6
— Tim Fernholz (@TimFernholz) January 9, 2018
Early this morning, SpaceX sent out another statement attributed to its President and COO Gwynne Shotwell which seems like a reaction to the finger-pointing WSJ article. This is the full quote:
“For clarity: after reviewing 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.”
It is still unclear what really happened to Zuma and we likely won’t know for a while due to its classified nature.
Image Credits: SpaceX