Northrop Grumman is Blamed For The Disappearance of Mysterious Government 'Zuma' Satellite

Monday, 09 April 2018 - 6:45PM
Technology
SpaceX
Monday, 09 April 2018 - 6:45PM
Northrop Grumman is Blamed For The Disappearance of Mysterious Government 'Zuma' Satellite
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SpaceX
At the beginning of the year, SpaceX got themselves into some major hot water when a government satellite launched atop one of their Falcon 9 rockets, only to never reach orbit

Since the U.S. government was so secretive about the purpose of this satellite - revealing only that it was code-named "Zuma" and that it likely cost around $3.5 million - they were silent about what went wrong during the launch, either because they didn't want the information getting out or because they themselves weren't sure what threw a wrench in the proverbial gears.

The public, for their part, blamed SpaceX since it was their rocket. But it turns out that both SpaceX and their Falcon 9 rocket are innocent in this mystery, as a new report from the Wall Street Journal claims that an government investigation finally discovered what was responsible for the missing satellite.

The fault lies with a part constructed by Northrop Grumman, who is frequently contracted to create aerospace technology for the U.S. government. In fact, they built the original Zuma satellite in the first place, although it was a piece of equipment responsible for separating Zuma from the rocket that failed.



It was Northrop Grumman who modified a payload adapter attached to the top of the Falcon 9 rocket, which was responsible for deploying the Zuma satellite into orbit once the rocket reached a suitable height. According to the investigators, this payload adapter apparently malfunctioned and failed to deploy the satellite from the rocket's second stage.

This also finally explains what happened to Zuma: if the satellite remained stuck to the second stage of the rocket, that means it joined that rocket part when it splashed down into the ocean for a watery grave. While SpaceX is more than capable of landing and reusing rockets, they didn't do so in this case, and if Zuma didn't burn completely up while re-entering Earth's atmosphere, then whatever remained joined the rocket part in a watery grave.

Northrop Grumman's payload adapter was custom designed for this mission, as the Zuma satellite's shape wouldn't have fit with the original model. The part was tested multiple times before launch, but for whatever reason, some variable in space caused the piece to stop working.

The aerospace/weapons company may now be in more hot water than SpaceX was just after the mission back in January, as they also seem to be partly responsible for delays in the James Webb Space Telescope, which is now being launched in 2020 because certain pieces weren't working properly during tests. Northrop Grumman was the main contractor who built several parts of the telescope.

So regardless of whatever Zuma was meant to do (it was speculated to be a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office), Elon Musk must be feeling pretty vindicated right about now. The Falcon 9 rocket worked the way it was supposed to during the botched mission.
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