A billion-dollar spy satellite, Zuma, launched by SpaceX was lost. What happened

On Sunday, January 7th, SpaceX launched a reusable Falcon 9 rocket with a payload that is code-named Zuma.

The Zuma mission was declared to be a “total failure” but the cause remains unclear.

It’s important to note that SpaceX was responsible for the launch and getting the satellite into Earth orbit, while the firm Northrop Grumman, who manufactured the satellite, was responsible for operating the piece of equipment once it was up there.

Zuma, on its ascent

Little has been said about what did or didn’t happen, due to the top secret nature of the space satellite, but it has been speculated that Zuma is worth nearly $2 billion and was a “total loss.” However, who’s to blame is another story.

SpaceX’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell is on the record as saying:

“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.” She added that “no design, operational or other changes are needed.”

The Wall Street Journal has reported:

Based on interviews with industry and government sources, that the satellite was dragged back down into atmosphere when it didn’t separate properly from the upper part of the rocket, either due to problems with the timing of the release or damage to the payload. Members of Congress and staffers were then briefed on the situation. The report, however, acknowledges the murky nature of the events and contains a caveat: “The lack of details about what occurred means that some possible alternate sequence of events other than a failed separation may have been the culprit.”

Another explanation was provided to The Verge, who reported:

Based on interviews with industry and government sources, that the satellite was dragged back down into atmosphere when it didn’t separate properly from the upper part of the rocket, either due to problems with the timing of the release or damage to the payload. Members of Congress and staffers were then briefed on the situation. The report, however, acknowledges the murky nature of the events and contains a caveat: “The lack of details about what occurred means that some possible alternate sequence of events other than a failed separation may have been the culprit.”

Zuma, being made ready for launch

Possibly the most plausible explanation came from Slate, who made this observation:

Northrop Grumman may be at fault, since it provided its own payload adapter, which detaches the satellite from the rocket. Or perhaps the satellite itself is faulty. Or maybe SpaceX hasn’t uncovered an issue on its end yet.

Or, the conspiracy theorist in me suggests that the mission went off without a hitch and Zuma is doing its job – whatever the hell that may be – in orbit right now.

If SpaceX is being honest, and by every indication they are, that means the fault has to be with Northrop Grumman. And if the payload returned to the atmosphere, either burning up on re-entry or splashing down into the ocean, then the fault lies with Northrop Grumman for a faulty adapter. Either way, there are a lot of questions that need answered, especially given the pricetag associated with this mission.

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