SpaceX avoids blame in loss of mysterious Zuma satellite

10 Apr 2018

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket taking off with the Zuma satellite on board. Image: SpaceX

The loss of an expensive and secretive payload had put SpaceX under the spotlight last January, but an investigation has found who was really to blame.

Before SpaceX stunned the world with the launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket and the deploying of a Tesla Roadster in space, the company made headlines for all the wrong reasons when a highly secretive $3.5bn payload dubbed Zuma was lost following a launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

Zuma, the US government satellite of unknown purpose, was built by Northrop Grumman. Some believed it to have been lost moments after it entered Earth’s orbit, with others maintaining that it didn’t manage to separate from the rocket at all.

Given the public failure of the mission, a blame game soon developed, resulting in a thorough independent investigation by two teams to find who was at fault.

Now, according to the The Wall Street Journal, the teams comprising US government and industry officials have determined that Northrop Grumman’s payload adapter was the reason behind the satellite’s failure.

On every SpaceX rocket, the company puts on its own adapter, which physically separates a satellite from the upper part of the rocket. However, in this instance, Northrop Grumman provided its own device.

Change of design

After analysing the launch data, the two teams concluded that sensors on board the payload adapter didn’t communicate immediately with ground control, meaning the crew was left in the dark as to whether it separated from the rocket.

As SpaceX intended to bring the reusable Falcon 9 rocket back, the crew carried on as normal, not realising that the satellite detached during re-entry in an orbit that was too low.

Because of Zuma’s unique and fragile design, Northrop Grumman reportedly changed the specifications for its payload adapter, and this is believed to have complicated the release of the payload.

This conclusion aligns with one of the theories for the mission’s failure. Northrop Grumman has not yet responded to comment on the matter.

With SpaceX now devoid of blame, president and COO Gwynne Shotwell issued a statement almost identical to the one immediately after the incident: “For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly.

“Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic