In early January, SpaceX categorically denied rumors that it had spoiled the launch of a classified spy satellite called Zuma, and now, a new government investigation has acquitted the company of the blame for the loss of the spacecraft. Government investigators investigating the mission determined that a structure on top of the rocket, called a payload adapter, could not place the satellite in orbit, reports The Wall Street Journal. That adapter was built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman, which means that SpaceX is not to blame for Zuma's demise.
This scenario is aligned with what many speculated at that time. SpaceX launched Zuma on its Falcon 9 rocket on January 7, and a day later, reports began to appear that the satellite had fallen back to Earth and burned in the atmosphere after the mission. However, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said the rocket was working as expected. "For clarity: after reviewing all the data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night," he said in a statement. "If we or other persons find the contrary based on a later review, we will inform you immediately, the published information that is contrary to this statement is categorically false."
The payload adapter was built by defense contractor Northrop Grumman
So how could the satellite have fallen back to Earth if the Falcon 9 had worked well? Well, a report in Wired noted that Northrop Grumman, who built the Zuma satellite, also provided the charging adapter, which is used to separate the spacecraft from the top of the rocket. Experts speculated that perhaps the adapter could not disconnect the satellite once in orbit. The top of Falcon 9 then dragged Zuma back to Earth when the vehicle fell out of orbit.
The Wall Street Journal confirms that theory. His report notes that Zuma's shape made him susceptible to vibration damage, so Northrop Grumman modified an adapter to make the spacecraft separation from the rocket more delicate. The adapter was tested three times before the flight, says the WSJ, but it did not work once in space. As a result, Zuma was dragged into the atmosphere by the rocket. Finally it separated from the rocket, according to the WSJ, but it was low and could not be saved. Northrop Grumman did not immediately respond to The Verge's request for comment.
SpaceX received much criticism for the loss of Zuma
The probe's findings are good news for SpaceX, which received much criticism for the loss of Zuma. During a congressional hearing after the launch, members of the House of Science Committee questioned a Vice President of SpaceX about the failure, questioning whether the company's vehicles were reliable. SpaceX continued to work on its Falcon 9 missions as if nothing was happening, and the US Air Force. UU He said he would continue to launch satellites on the company's rocket.
Meanwhile, the payload adapter failure is not a good option for Northrop Grumman, which is having difficulty rebuilding another major spacecraft at this time: NASA's James Webb Space Telescope. Northrop is the prime contractor for the telescope and is currently integrating large pieces of the spacecraft into the company's facilities in Redondo Beach, California. However, NASA recently announced that the launch of James Webb will have to be delayed until 2020, due to a series of errors and delays that occurred in Northrop during the construction process.