Earlier this year, SpaceX helped the US government send a spy satellite into orbit. The launch was somewhat hush-hush, at least in terms of how much SpaceX was allowed to talk about it, but it’s not the first time the company has carried out such tasks for government agencies. However, this time things went a bit sideways and the satellite ended up plummeting back through Earth’s atmosphere, completely destroying it in the inferno of reentry. SpaceX denied being at fault and now a new report seems to support its stance.
The Wall Street Journal is reporting that an internal probe into the whole mess revealed that a payload adapter attached to the satellite failed, dooming the spacecraft to an early death. The adapter is not a component built by SpaceX, but rather by defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Whoops!
Northrop Grumman, which also built the Zuma spy satellite in question, attached the faulty adapter to the spacecraft prior to delivering it to SpaceX. SpaceX did its job, sending the whole package into orbit atop the Falcon 9, but the adapter is thought to have failed to detach the satellite from the top of the spacecraft when it was supposed to, and when the Falcon 9’s top section fell back to Earth it brought the satellite along with it.
According to the report, the adapter was tested three times before it was approved to be sent into space, but it just happened to fail once it actually counted. The adapter eventually cut the satellite loose, but it was too late and the spacecraft was already headed for the intense friction of Earth’s atmosphere.
As The Verge points out, Northrop Grumman also happens to be the contractor tasked with readying the James Webb Space Telescope for its eventual launch. That spacecraft, as you may remember, was recently delayed from its 2019 launch window and pushed back to 2020 after an independent assessment of the spacecraft revealed that it wasn’t going to be ready in time.
If you’re still a bit skeptical about the ultimate fate of the Zuma satellite, it’s certainly understandable. “Government says spy satellite was destroyed” sure sounds like a headline you might see on a satire website. That said, SpaceX, which has private customers and plenty of contracts with other non-government groups, would seem less inclined to lie about the ultimate failure of one of its launch goals considering the circumstances. In any case, the Zuma satellite is “officially” dead.