SpaceX’s January 7th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket carrying a classified government payload estimated to cost in the neighborhood of one billion dollars was reported a failure by unnamed government officials at the time, but what really happened to the mission, named “Zuma,” remains a mystery lawmakers sought to resolve on Wednesday.

The Zuma payload seemed to deploy from the SpaceX rocket and, depending on the source, may have completed one full orbit of the earth before disappearing from the public tracking apparatus for orbital bodies. According to statements from officials under the condition of anonymity, the payload failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket, causing them both to tumble back into the earth’s atmosphere, burning up in the process.

However, in the days since, the Department of Defense has been unwilling to comment on the final disposition of the Northrop Grumman constructed secret satellite payload, referring questions instead to SpaceX. For their part, SpaceX has maintained that there was no failure in their Falcon 9 platform, and while they won’t comment on the payload itself, they have been clear that if something were to have gone wrong, SpaceX was not to blame.

In Wednesday’s hearing before the House Space Subcommittee, intended to gauge the progress of SpaceX and NASA’s commercial crew program, lawmakers immediately brought up the Zuma mission, associating the potential loss of a billion dollar defense asset with concerns about the safety of a manned mission on the same rocket platform.

Recent press reports indicated that a U.S. government mission named Zuma may have either failed in orbit or the launch could have been unsuccessful,” Rep. Brian Babin, a Republican out of Texas, said. “I do not want to discuss anything classified in an open session, [but] the circumstances surrounding this mission do have a direct impact on NASA and this committee’s jurisdiction and oversight responsibilities.”

In Babin’s eyes, this failure casts concerns about upcoming SpaceX launches with high-dollar payloads, as well as planned missions that could see a crew put at risk if there’s an issue with the platform. In March, SpaceX will be launching a large exoplanet survey telescope, and the company is expected to begin shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space Station in the not too distant future. Further, if the fault was on Northrop Grumman, who reportedly built the payload adapter that secured the Zuma payload to the Falcon 9’s second stage, it would also be a matter of concern. Among a litany of government contracts, Northrop is also working on the $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope project.

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I want to point out, on the Zuma mission, that we relayed the information that Falcon 9 … performed very well as specified, and that we are picking up the launches by the end of the month as we planned all the time,” Hans Koenigsmann, the vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, told the committee. “Regarding a briefing, we will go through the proper channels, and follow the protocol — as you pointed out, we can’t talk any details in this particular setting.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 underway with Zuma payload on board on January 7th.

NASA’s associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, William Gertenmaier, seemed to insinuate that there hadn’t been a failure in the Zuma launch at all. When asked about what happened on January 7th, Gertenmaier suggested that NASA would be involved in the investigation if and when the mission is formally declared a failure – indicating that internally, it has not been thus far.

“We do not know the details of the mission, per se, but we’ve been informed by others that if there’s any mishap investigation or any other activities that are involved, we will be appropriately involved in that activity,” Gerstenmaier said.

“If this is declared a mishap and we understand that it’s a mishap, NASA will be informed, and we will have appropriate personnel participate in those mishap activities.”

Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama and the vice chair of the subcommittee, pushed a little further into Zuma in his questioning, though the response he received was similarly muted.

“I can’t, unfortunately, present any details; I can only reiterate that Falcon 9 did everything Falcon 9 was supposed to do.” Koenigsmann told him.
These comments effectively leave only three possibilities regarding the final disposition of the Zuma payload. If it was indeed lost prior to or even after completing one orbit, it could potentially be the result of a failure in the Northrop constructed payload adapter. If it failed to release, the Zuma satellite and second stage of the rocket may have re-entered the atmosphere as a result. Northrop has repeatedly stated that they will not discuss the Zuma payload, as the mission and accompanying projects are all classified.

Alternately, it’s possible that the Zuma payload was deployed properly, but listing it as a failure could have been the excuse used to bar it from being tracked with other orbital assets. SpaceX was notably tight-lipped about the Zuma launch in the first place, seemingly trying to keep eyes away from it, despite normally attempting to garner as much attention as possible for its launches. Even previous missions deploying classified payloads received the PR treatment from SpaceX, seeming to indicate that something about Zuma was different than previous spy satellite deployments. If Zuma is actually an orbital defensive or offensive asset, particularly one that’s maneuverable, it stands to reason that the government would not want anyone tracking its location.

Gerstenmaier’s remarks about how NASA would be involved if the mission was classified as a mishap would seem to support this possibility, unless communication lines are just so slow that no investigation has been launched thus far.

China has already demonstrated a propensity for using ground-based lasers traditionally used to track satellite locations to inundate American spy satellites with “white noise;” an effort that has proven fruitless due to the low yield of these lasers, but potentially dangerous with an increase in power output.

SpaceX's classified Zuma mission a failure, secret payload believed to have burned up on reentry

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This image shows the Sodium Guidestar at the Air Force Research Laboratory Directed Energy Directorate’s Starfire Optical Range. China has used similar lasers to attempt to blind satellites as they pass overhead. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Finally, it’s possible that SpaceX is simply lying about what happened for the sake of protecting their image. Because the payload was classified, the cause of the failure may never be made public, and although the government will be privy to the issue internally, SpaceX would not have to worry about the PR fallout from such a massive gaff.

Unfortunately, it’s possible that we may never know.

 

Image courtesy of SpaceX