Tuesday, January 9, 2018

SpaceX Indicates Its Rocket Didn’t Cause Loss of Spy Satellite: Company suggests unspecified problems beyond booster performance led to botched deployment of highly classified spacecraft

The satellite code-named Zuma was launched from Florida on board a Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday.  

The Wall Street Journal
By Andy Pasztor
January 9, 2018 3:37 p.m. ET

Elon Musk’s SpaceX said it wasn’t responsible for the loss of an expensive U.S. spy satellite it launched over the weekend, pointing instead to unspecified problems with the payload or mechanisms that attached it and eventually were supposed to release it from the rocket.

But Tuesday’s terse company statement—coupled with continuing silence from federal authorities and a flurry of sometimes contradictory media reports—left the precise cause of the botched mission as unclear as ever.

Lawmakers and congressional staffers from the Senate and the House have been briefed about the satellite—code-named Zuma and launched from Florida on board a Falcon 9 rocket—which is believed to have plummeted back into the atmosphere, according to government and industry officials. Presumed to be a total loss, the satellite didn’t separate as planned from the upper part of the rocket, these officials said.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., as the company is formally known, in its latest statement appeared to pin the blame elsewhere by saying a data review indicated the rocket “did everything correctly” and management has concluded “no design, operational or other changes are needed.”

The two-paragraph statement by company President Gwynne Shotwell, who also said future launch schedules aren’t expected to be affected, suggests that the culprit was a glitch with the adapter that attached the satellite to the rocket or some malfunction with the satellite itself. Industry officials tracking the investigation said the satellite’s protective cover separated as planned.

But SpaceX declined to elaborate and Northrop Grumman Corp. , which built the satellite, said under its normal procedures it doesn’t comment on classified projects.

The satellite’s mission and fate, however, sparked intense interest in industry circles and on Capitol Hill, partly because of what is believed to be a multibillion-dollar price tag and the apparent rush to get it into orbit. It was placed on SpaceX’s manifest with scant advance notice.

Once the engine powering a rocket’s expendable second stage stops firing, whatever it is carrying is supposed to separate and proceed on its own trajectory. The separation procedure generally isn’t considered as vital or complex as proper engine firing, but problems with it have been known to disable satellites carried by other rockets in the past.

If a satellite isn’t set free at the right time or is damaged upon release, it can be dragged back toward earth.

Scheduled for mid-November, Zuma’s launch was delayed when SpaceX announced engineers “wanted to take a closer look at data from recent” tests of a fairing, or protective covering for a satellite, used for another customer. At the time, the company didn’t publicly outline what prompted the additional testing. Fairings are used to shield satellites that are carried near the nose of the rocket. They remain in place during the early phases of the ascent, but are jettisoned before final insertion into orbit.

During the launch, SpaceX didn’t signal any problems with the fairing or associated hardware. A real-time videotape broadcast of the flight on SpaceX’s website was halted shortly after the covering separated from the rocket, a move intended to block public view of the highly classified satellite.

Prior to launch, some trade press reports indicated Northrop Grumman provided the adapter attaching the payload to the rocket. But the companies haven’t confirmed that detail. Over the years, the Falcon 9 hasn’t experienced difficulties with hardware designed to release satellites into space.

SpaceX’s usual protocols should provide engineers with a huge cache of video images and sensor data as they delve into what happened.

The lack of public details about what occurred means that some possible alternate sequence of events other than a failed separation still could turn out to be the culprit. But SpaceX’s repeated assertions that the rocket performed exactly as expected—from blastoff to final engine shutdown—make that increasingly unlikely.

For rapidly growing SpaceX, which seeks to establish itself as a reliable, low-cost launch provider for the Pentagon, the failed mission came at an important juncture. The company is stepping up competition for more national-security launches against its primary rival, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Original article can be found here ➤ https://www.wsj.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


This is really bad, for a lot of reasons, but it's not yet clear who blew it. I watched that launch (I can see them from my front yard), and both the first and second stages did exactly what they were supposed to do; the second stage continued on up and straight and visible until it disappeared over the horizon, and the first stage returned to its ground recovery pad exactly as planned.

The fact that they don't seem to know what became of the satellite has the potential to turn this from a fiasco into an absolute disaster.

And of course, We The People are on the hook for the multi-billion dollar loss.


I doubt that SpaceX will get another classified payload, ever. ULA has been putting up Atlas 5s and Delta 4s with 100% reliability for decades, and while they're more expensive, for strategically significant payloads like this one, the extra $$$ will be worth it to get 99.99999% launch confidence.

This might be a good time to short Tesla. The bubble is bursting.