Published: Thu, January 11, 2018
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

SpaceX dealt blow as secret military satellite goes missing

SpaceX dealt blow as secret military satellite goes missing

SpaceX's Falcon 9 seemed to lift off successfully from the pad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Sunday carrying a classified payload in a mission code-named Zuma.

Company president Gwynne Shotwell said the rocket "did everything correctly" and suggestions otherwise are "categorically false", according to the Associated Press.

Northrop Grumman, the aerospace and defense company that built the Zuma spacecraft, would only say: "This is a classified program". During launches for commercial satellite customers, SpaceX typically returns to the webcast to confirm that the payload has separated from the second stage, but Zuma was a classified mission so the lack of further messages wasn't surprising.

So if there was a problem, who's at fault? The satellite was said to have fallen back to Earth along with the second stage of the rocket.

The Wall Street Journal quotes unidentified congressional officials who were briefed on the mission as saying the satellite apparently did not separate from the second stage, and plunged through the atmosphere and burned up.

There's still no official confirmation from the US government or the payload manufacturer that the mission was a success or failure.

"This is a classified mission".

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The loss, if it was determined to be a failure of SpaceX hardware, could be a "real threat" to the company's future defense business, said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute. On Monday, Ars began to hear discussion from sources that the mysterious Zuma spacecraft-the objective of which was never specified, nor which United States military or spy agency had backed it-may not have survived. They say that the adapter that attaches the satellite to the rocket's upper stage might have malfunctioned and that would have resulted in the failure of the mission. But afterward, the US Strategic Command said it wasn't tracking any new satellites, an indication that the satellite somehow failed to deploy properly.

"The most important issue here is whether the Pentagon will rethink its reliability as a provider of launch services", said Thompson, whose think tank receives funding from Boeing and Lockheed. All three cores of Falcon Heavy have been test fired individually at SpaceX's facilities in McGregor, Texas, but they have yet to light up together.

With a price tag of $62 million, the Falcon 9 was designed as a two-stage rocket, becoming the world's first orbital-class rocket with reflight capability.

Originally scheduled for a November launch, Zuma was delayed by potential concern about another mission's payload fairing, the shell on top that protects a satellite during launch.

SpaceX launched two other national security missions previous year: a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office in May and the Pentagon's autonomous space plane, known as the X-37B, in September.

SpaceX's Shotwell said in a statement that since no rocket changes are warranted for upcoming flights, the company's launch schedule remains on track.

Actions taken by SpaceX on Monday indicate its confidence in the rocket's performance during the Zuma launch. After an extensive Air Force review, SpaceX was certified in 2015 to compete for military launches.

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