The mysterious Zuma payload may have crashed and burned following SpaceX launch

Yesterday it seemed SpaceX had successfully launched the top-secret Zuma spacecraft for the US government, but reports have since spread that the classified satellite was in fact lost after dropping out of orbit.

The mysterious Zuma payload may have crashed and burned following SpaceX launch

According to The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, the mission may have been botched after the Zuma payload plummeted back into the Earth’s atmosphere where it was promptly burnt to a crisp.

Speaking to Bloomberg, a spokesperson for US Navy Command – which monitors tens-of-thousands of man-made objects in space – said there was “nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time”, following the launch. The site also notes reports from an unnamed US official and two congressional aides that the second-stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster rocket was unsuccessful.

To complicate matters, there are conflicting reports that Zuma did actually make it to orbit. Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer Jonathan McDowell noted on twitter that did indeed catalogue the satellite. The implication, he claims, is that “it completed at least one orbit”.

Given the secretive nature of the Zuma mission, there’s no official word about the condition of the payload. James Gleeson, a spokesman for SpaceX, said: “We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell has since put out a statement saying the Falcon 9 rocket “did everything right”, and that the outcome of the Zuma mission will not affect the Falcon Heavy launch planned for the end of January. 

So did Zuma burn up or not? It certainly looks like something went amiss, although the first stage of the Falcon 9 did manage a success re-landing. Whether or not the supposed failure of the second stage booster was SpaceX’s fault is up for debate. In another tweet, McDowell says that Northrop Grumman provided a payload adaptor, so it may be the case that this mechanism is what failed to work.

The Falcon 9 lifted off at 8pm ET (1am GMT) yesterday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, with the rocket’s two stages separating at 2 minutes, 19 seconds into the flight. The first stage returned to the ground – specifically the SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral, Landing Zone 1 – while the second stage carried the Zuma payload to a low-Earth orbit (LEO) destination – at least in theory.

Little is known about Zuma, bar the fact it is a secret US government project. Aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman, which is in charge of the launch, has simply called it a “restricted payload”. As reports: “we don’t know which agency will operate the satellite, or if its mission is civilian or military.”

The fact Zuma was supposed to go into LEO suggests it may have been a military satellite of some kind. Associated Press notes: “SpaceX ended launch commentary five minutes into the flight, due to the classified nature of the US satellite.”

Regardless of the fate of Zuma, the successful landing of Falcon’s booster marks the 21st time the company has completed this pioneering manoeuvre. Being able to reuse part of the rocket has the scope to reshape the costs for launching spacecraft and looks to be a vital part of future space travel.

Next up for SpaceX is the launch of Falcon Heavy in late January; which, if successful, will be the world’s most powerful rocket in operation. The Heavy can lift over 54 metric tonnes into orbit – more than double that of its closest competitor, the Delta IV Heavy. 

There’s every chance the Falcon Heavy will blow up at its first launch. Elon Musk is staking a sizeable bet on its success, putting none other than one of his Tesla Roadsters in the spacecraft’s nosecone.

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