SpaceX Insists Falcon 9 Performed Nominally for Zuma Launch

SpaceX Insists Falcon 9 Performed Nominally for Zuma Launch

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell issued a statement this morning reasserting the company’s position that its Falcon 9 rocket was not at fault for whatever happened to the Zuma satellite.  Publicly, the fate of the mysterious satellite remains unknown.

Zuma lifted off from SpaceX’s Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on Sunday evening at 8:00 pm ET in what appeared to be a perfect Falcon 9 launch and landing of the first stage.

The satellite is highly classified.  All that is known about it publicly is that it was built by Northrop Grumman for a U.S. government customer, but not which agency ordered it.

SpaceX televised the launch and landing of the first stage, but did not provide coverage of the second stage firing or orbital insertion of the satellite, as it often does, because of the classified nature of the mission.

Yesterday afternoon, media reports began appearing stating that the satellite was lost and members of Congress had been briefed on the failure.  Both the Wall Street Journal and Reuters quoted unnamed officials as saying the satellite did not separate from the Falcon 9 second stage.   SpaceX issued a statement last night that from all the data it had available, the Falcon 9 performed nominally.

Shotwell went a step further in a statement distributed by email this morning:

The following statement is from Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX:

“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.”

A photograph taken by a Dutch airline pilot, Peter Horstink, flying near Sudan coupled with analysis by Dutch amateur satellite tracker Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) supports the assessment that the second stage performed as expected.

Langbroek posted the photo on his SatTrackCam Leiden blog and concluded it “almost certainly” is of the second stage “depressurizing and venting fuel at the end of its de-orbit burn.”  SatTrackCam Leiden is an amateur satellite tracking station in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Until government officials are willing to make a public statement about Zuma, its fate will remain a mystery.  All information so far does appear to exonerate the Falcon 9.  In addition to the SatTrackCam Leiden analysis, the government did allow Shotwell to make that statement today, apparently not wanting the failure to weigh against SpaceX, but also intent on keeping Zuma’s mission secret.  The fact that SpaceX is proceeding with its launch plans, including an imminent static fire test in preparation for the upcoming first launch of the new Falcon Heavy rocket, demonstrates that SpaceX is convinced all is well technically.

Speculation about what could have happened includes a failure of the satellite to separate from the second stage due to a problem with the interface between the two.  Wired reported in November, when the launch was originally scheduled, that Northrop Grumman itself provided the “adapter to mate with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.”  Another possibility is that the two separated, but the satellite immediately failed and reentered soon afterwards.

Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report, which provides detailed information about space launches, tweeted yesterday that the Air Force assigned a tracking number (43098) and name (USA 280) to the object, suggesting that it made at least one orbit, but leaving open the question of whether the satellite and second stage separated or not.

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