Was secret Zuma mission lost? – UPDATE
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A report drafted by Ars Technica’s Eric Berger has stated that sources have suggested that the classified Zuma mission launched atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket – may have been lost.
Berger’s report is supported by fellow aerospace journalist Peter B. de Selding who tweeted that: “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.”
Indeed outside of the fact that the spacecraft was apparently manufactured by Northrop Grumman – little else is known about it – not even which government agency the satellite was sent aloft on behalf of.
Various and, as yet, unconfirmed scenarios have been released by sources including one that the payload did not separate from the Falcon 9’s upper stage and fell back to Earth.
If these reports are accurate, it would make the third total loss of a payload (and one partial loss). The first (partial) payload loss occurred on the CRS-1 mission when the secondary payload of an Orbcomm satellite was placed into the wrong orbit in October of 2012 (according to a report appearing on Space News). Fast forward to June 28, 2015 and the CRS-7 Dragon spacecraft with its crew supplies, experiments and cargo bound for the International Space Station was lost during an over-pressure event (explosion) involving the Falcon 9’s second stage (as noted by the New York Times Kenneth Chang). On Sept. 1, 2016 a Falcon 9 which was sitting on the pad at SLC-40 exploded during pre-flight tests. This resulted in the loss of Spacecom’s $185 million Amos-6 satellite, the Falcon 9 rocket and parts of the launch site.
Last evening’s launch got underway at approximately 8:01 p.m. EST (01:01 GMT) on Sunday, Jan. 7. By all appearances the first portion of the flight proceeded normally with the Falcon 9 lifting off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) located in Florida. The rocket’s first stage then successfully landed back at Canaveral’s Landing Zone 1 approximately seven and a half minutes after lifting off.
SpaceX has only just recently received approval to fly U.S. national security payloads (Zuma was the third, with the first being the launch of the NROL-76 payload on May 1, 2017 and the second being the flight of a Boeing X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle on Sept. 7, 2017). The Zuma mission had encountered several delays and was originally slated to fly late last year (2017). However, an issue with another Falcon 9’s payload fairing had caused the mission to slip to 2018.
On Tuesday, Jan. 9 SpaceX released the following statement from the company’s Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell:
“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.
“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.”
When additional information is made available, SpaceFlight Insider will provide updates.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.