From The Editors Science

SpaceX’s “ZUMA” Mission A Disaster? Top Secret Govt. Satellite Is Presumed Lost

SpaceX’s first launch of the year may not have been the success one thought it was. While the first stage of the brand new Falcon 9 rocket returned safely to Earth, the top-secret payload “Zuma,” probably worth billions, apparently did not make it to its intended orbit.

According to plans, the 2nd stage was supposed to detach from the prized payload and fall back toward Earth to disintegrate on re-entry, while Zuma continued on its hush-hush mission.

However, if reports are to be believed, Zuma may have failed to detach from the second stage and got dragged back with it, to burn up together as they re-entered the earth’s atmosphere.

Ars Technica’s spaceflight journalist Eric Berger wrote that “on Monday, Ars began to hear discussion from sources that the mysterious Zuma spacecraft—the purpose of which was never specified, nor which US military or spy agency had backed it—may not have survived. According to one source, the payload fell back to Earth along with the spent upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.”

It must be mentioned that Northrop Grumman, the makers of Zuma, was commissioned by an undisclosed U.S. Govt agency to select a contractor for the launch and it gave the nod to SpaceX, which one can say now, with the benefit of hindsight, was not the right decision.

Northrop’s Vice President for Strategic Communications Tim Paynter refused to discuss the matter, citing the classified nature of the mission. “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions,” he said.

A Monday afternoon query about the mission’s fate elicited a similar response from a SpaceX spokesperson. “We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

The news that the Zuma mission may have ended up in disaster was first tweeted by Peter B. de Selding, a spaceflight reporter for Space Intel Report, whose sources said that the satellite “may be dead in orbit.”

“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,” read Selding’s post.

This is the second billion-dollar-plus payload SpaceX has lost in a span of sixteen months, having previously lost a Facebook communications satellite along with a Falcon 9 rocket, atop which it was sitting, to an explosion during a static fire-test prior to the intended launch, in September 2016.

This is likely to cause a massive dent in the company’s reputation, which in turn could result in loss of lucrative business to its competition, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) – a Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture – unless the loss was a result of a “satellite-only issue,” in which case SpaceX will stand absolved of the responsibility for the misfortune.

While the 23-minute SpaceX webcast did cover the Sunday night liftoff, the fairings deployment, and the incident-free first-stage return amid cheers and applause from SpaceX employees at Mission Control in Hawthorne, California, the webcast did not confirm payload separation from the second stage – as it normally does with commercial launches. It was to be expected, though, what with all the secrecy behind the mission.

Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor also reported the “presumed” loss saying that Zuma “failed to reach orbit.”

“An expensive, highly classified U.S. spy satellite is presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit atop a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket on Sunday, according to industry and government officials,” wrote Pasztor.

Originally scheduled for a November launch, the mission was delayed by SpaceX in order to study data from an earlier payload-fairing test the company had executed for another client.

The term payload fairing refers the nose cone of a rocket, the purpose of which is to protect the payload from the impact of dynamic pressure and aerodynamic heating during launch through an atmosphere, as Wikipedia explains.

SpaceX has carried sensitive payloads for Uncle Sam in the past as well, including the National Reconnaissance Office in May 2017 and the U.S. Air Force spacecraft X-37B later in the year.

According to Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell, space situational awareness service Space-Track cataloged Zuma, which effectively means that the payload did make it to orbit.

Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, on the other hand, told Bloomberg that the military division has “nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time.”

With Northrop and SpaceX not very forthcoming on the matter, no conclusion can be arrived at in so far as what really happened with Zuma is concerned.

Here are astronomer McDowell’s tweeted analyses of probable scenarios.

If Zuma was (is) really a spy satellite, as several reports suggest, then the rumor of the mission ending in disaster could well be a government-orchestrated move in order to divert attention from the satellite’s real mission.

Anything is possible!

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