The Wall Street Journal is reporting that two anonymous government officials familiar with the classified ZUMA mission, launched by SpaceX on Jan 7, declare the payload a “total loss” after falling into the Atlantic Ocean.
The satellite, which reportedly cost upwards of $1 billion or more, is believed to have failed to reach orbit after not separating from the Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage.
Very little is known about the payload, other than the fact that Northrop Grumman built it and selected SpaceX as the launcher. What exactly ZUMA is who knows, but Northrop also confirmed to AmericaSpace last Nov that it would operate in low-Earth orbit.
Even the government agency ZUMA belongs to is a secret.
Northrop also reportedly made the payload adaptor for ZUMA, but will not comment on classified missions. SpaceX however says their rocket performed just as it was supposed to, with “data indicating Falcon 9 performed nominally”, said a spokesperson with the company. Suggesting anything that may have happened was the fault of Northrop.
ZUMA may have been SpaceX’s third classified national security payload since the US Air Force formally certified SpaceX to begin competing against ULA to launch them in May 2015, but it was surely the most secretive thus far.
ZUMA is “a write-off,” said officials to Reuters.
As for SpaceX, attention is back at launch complex 39A, where their Falcon heavy was rolled back, fully integrated, on Jan 8 for testing this week, with the company hoping to launch the mammoth triple-barreled rocket with 27 engines by the end of this month.
But depending on how the testing goes, SpaceX may decide to turn focus to launching the SES 16/GovSat 1 communications satellite first, according to a spokesperson with SpaceX. Which would makes sense considering that is for a paying customer, while the Falcon Heavy debut is not.
The company has not announced any dates publicly for static test fire or launch attempts yet.
Elon Musk’s original Tesla Roadster is onboard too, headed for a “billion year elliptic Mars orbit” according to Musk, even playing “Space Oddity”.
The company originally wanted Falcon Heavy flying missions beginning in “late 2013 or 2014”, but numerous delays, two exploded rockets (CRS-7 and AMOS-6), and greater than expected engineering challenges in developing Falcon Heavy all contributed to a now, much later expected debut of early 2018 for the new booster.
At liftoff, all 27 engines will produce as much thrust as eighteen jumbo 747 aircraft at full power, or 5.13 million pounds of thrust. That will make it the most powerful U.S. rocket since the Saturn V, which launched astronauts to the moon during NASA’s historic Apollo era, and the most powerful rocket currently operating in the world.
Given the delays and challenges, Musk has set the bar a bit low for the rocket’s first demo flight. “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage,” said Musk this summer. “I would consider even that a win, to be honest.”
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