In turns out, SpaceX was indeed not responsible for the loss of a top-secret government satellite that fell back to earth and was destroyed following a Falcon 9 rocket launch earlier this year, a report in The Wall Street Journal today states.
The Zuma satellite’s purpose was highly classified, but the fate of the project, which was rumored to cost $3.5 billion to develop, was covered in a high-profile fashion because it was intimately tied to a live-streamed SpaceX launch. Sources familiar with two separate federal and industry investigations tell the Journal that the blame for the failure rests with the failure of a payload adapter modified by top military contractor Northrop Grumman, which also built the Zuma satellite itself.
The payload adapter device struggled to operate in zero gravity conditions, the report details:
The device, purchased from a subcontractor, was significantly modified and then successfully tested three times on the ground by Northrop Grumman, according to one person familiar with the process. But upon reaching orbit, this person said, the adapter didn’t uncouple the satellite from the rocket in zero-gravity conditions.
Sensors on board failed to immediately report what happened, this person said, so officials tracking the launch weren’t aware of the major malfunction until the satellite was dragged back into the atmosphere by the returning second stage. The satellite ultimately broke free but by then had dropped to an altitude that was too low for a rescue.
In the aftermath of the successful Falcon 9 launch, word emerged that the Zuma satellite separation had been far less successful, but because of the project’s classified nature there was no official word to be found. Given the often tenuous nature of SpaceX’s history with public perception of its rocket safety, the company did later publicly note that the Falcon 9 “did everything correctly,” insinuating that the fault did not lie with its tech.
Reports soon emerged that the failure was likely not the fault of SpaceX, and it seems that after investigations, the government has concluded the same.