Zuma

Did last night’s mission fail? No indication that there was a launch problem.

[Tuesday-morning update]

Here’s some interesting info.

[Update a few minutes later]

Here’s the story (so far) from Tim Fernholz.

[Update a while ago]

Here‘s a CNBC story. I have trouble believing the satellite cost “billions” of dollars, though I suppose it’s possible; Webb will.

33 comments on this post.
  1. wodun:

    “Failed”

  2. Nick B.:

    It’s funny, I’ve seen no actual indication of a failure, and in fact a tweet that it was successful from the AF, and because there’s no official comment on the status of the so-super-secret-we-don’t-even-know-what-agency-owns-it satellite people assume it failed? Call me crazy, but I fail to see anything weird here at all.

  3. wodun:

    It could just be Berger trying to bully some more information out of the government or SpaceX.

  4. brightdark:

    I remember STS-36 in 1990 that released “Misty” which probably was a camouflaged KH-11. Right afterwards some things were spotted decaying and the whispers were that the vehicle had failed. Later that year, it was spotted again. An attempt to hide it?

    That was also the mission they carried a human skull fitted with radiation sensors. According to Mike Mullane they scared the crap out of the commander with. They put someone in a sleeping sack with their arms out, tied the skull to the top, and floated it up into the flight deck when the guy’s back was turned. His reaction when he turned around was said to be….interesting.

  5. Kirk:

    If you mean this Air Force tweet from the 45th Space Wing, then it was sent at 20:09, nine minutes after launch, right about the time of SECO-1. That might not have been too early to congratulate the teams on a successful launch and landing, but it was way too early to declare the mission a success.

    That aside, I agree that given the nature of the mission, we can’t make too much of these rumors.

  6. ken anthony:

    This satellite does not exist. Now go back to sleep.

  7. Leland:

    Like the other 200 people that bumped it up; I agree that speculation of a failure would be great way to keep a secret satellite secret. I certainly can’t imagine the greater value in confirming the results one way or the other. Likely the only way to learn more is wait and see if SpaceX gets any additional launches of this sort.

  8. ken anthony:

    It reminds me of when I a teenager in Phoenix and my buddy Gary worked in tactical communications at the AFB (Luke, was it?) At the time they had F15s there (new at the time) parked in areas with painted lines on the ground you did not cross.

    I used to hop the fence to get on base (front gate wasn’t an option.) My buddy worked with some really ancient radar and I used to watch the F15s on it. These were not stealthy planes. Anyway, planes kept disappearing and reappearing on the radar. My buddy gave me a story that I didn’t buy, then finally told me the planes had electronics on it that would hide it from radar (not scramble the screens like the old phantoms) but could only use in short duration. I really didn’t believe that either and also knew it wasn’t because of hills blocking the radar so I finally asked, “Can they really hide from radar?” Then he told me “not really, but to get them back on screen we’d have to turn up the power to the point that it would fry the radar in just a few minutes.”

    Make what you like of the story. I still don’t know what to believe. This was in the late 70s.

  9. Andrew_W:

    Aircrafts radar image can vary by an order of magnitude or more depending on their orientation to the beam.

  10. ken anthony:

    That makes sense, but there would be something (and F15s are huge in terms of a fighter.) Going to air shows I thought they could be replaced by a whale with a rectum rocket.

    It was decades ago, so I can’t be certain what I remember seeing. Surely my buddy would have mentioned that as an explanation? OTOH, all it would have to do is go below the threshold of the equipment. The reflection would exist but the screen wouldn’t show it? Yes, that does make sense.

  11. rickl:

    Well, since no agency claimed ownership of Zuma, it stands to reason that no agency would confirm success.

    NSF.com showed a couple of photos taken over Africa that seem to show the second stage venting propellant, which it would do before re-entry. If the satellite failed to separate from the second stage, I would think they would delay deorbiting the second stage in an effort to save the satellite.

    And maybe it’s possible that Zuma was some kind of experiment that wasn’t intended to go into orbit.

  12. rickl:

    The webcast referred to “SES-1” meaning “second engine start” which implies that there was more than one second stage burn.

  13. Dick Eagleson:

    There are usually at least two 2nd stage burns for F9 satellite deployments. The second one usually occurs after a coast period. On civilian satellite missions, SpaceX keeps the webcast going throughout the coast period, shows the relight of the 2nd stage and then continues through a possible second coast period and the deployment(s). On classified missions, webcast coverage doesn’t show anything having to do with the 2nd stage after its initial ignition following stage separation on ascent. The webcast then becomes all about landing the 1st stage and ends when that occurs.

  14. Ctrot:

    I would assume that if it did make it into a stable orbit then satellite tracking aficionados around the world will spot it in a few days. Unless of course steps were taken to make the satellite difficult or impossible to spot visually, or even by radar. Which could be really handy for a secret satellite.

  15. Kirk:

    Here is a cool photo taken by a Dutch pilot flying over Khartoum (Sudan) at about 03:15 UTC, about 2h 15m after launch. Here are the associated tweets by Dr Marco Langbroek, an amateur astronomer and self-proclaimed “spy satellite tracker”, claiming it is the F9 first stage spinning while venting tanks after doing it’s deorbit burn. I’m not aware of seeing such an image from a F9 S2 before.

  16. rickl:

    Very cool photo, but that would be the second stage, as the first stage was safely back on the ground by that time.

  17. Kirk:

    Oops. Yep, that’s what I meant. Thanks! There are also some cool photos of the first stage out there, but not from Khartoum!

  18. Kirk:

    And here is another photo of the second stage over Sudan, this one taken from the ground. (Associated tweet.)

    I don’t recall such photos from previous Falcon 9 missions.

  19. Larry J:

    Some are saying the satellite didn’t achieve orbit. However, that makes little sense. If the Falcon 9 second stage achieved orbit – and these photos confirm that it did – the only way the satellite would not have achieved orbit is if it deployed early before the second stage achieved a stable orbit. Not likely but not impossible.

  20. M Puckett:

    Seems that Andy Pasztor is the origin of this rumor.

    What an easy way to take a cheap shot at SpaceX without being able to be sued for libel.

    That lying scumbag needs a fucking Bronx tune-up.

  21. Ctrot:

    And the morons commenting on his WSJ article are lapping it up, blaming Trump etc.

  22. Charles Lurio:

    I’m almost getting choked up with nostalgia for the old days when Andy used to do this sort of thing several times a year….no, not really.

    I’m pretty sure Zuma has failed. I’m even more sure that the launch system had nothing to do with it. Meanwhile Pasztor’s approach of throwing sh*t at SpaceX in the lede is propagating elsewhere, e.g. CNBC.

    Given experience over the years, I strongly suspect that Andy and perhaps others are getting ‘tips’ from ‘friends of NG’. They had a hard time last year with all the SpaceX successes, so they’d jump at this ravenously.

  23. Larry J:

    I’ve only seen one launch in person. It was a Delta II out of Vandenberg carrying an NRO payload. Turns out the satellite died 1 second after separation. Bush ’43 ordered the Navy to destroy it shortly before reentry. Sometimes satellites die on delivery.

    SpaceX didn’t do the prelaunch preparation on this launch. Northrop did. If the satellite failed to separate or died after separation, that isn’t SpaceX’s fault.

  24. wodun:

    Fire up the alert MEV and send it to retrieve Zuma and bring it to the Cygnus workshop. Oh wait, that’s a few years off still.

  25. MikeR:

    I was tired of Zuma two months ago, when it was delayed over some imaginary fairing issue. Now I thought we were done with it and could get back to normal launches. Oh, well.

  26. MikeR:

    Comment on spaceflightnow:
    ‘Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX, released the following statement this morning at 9:20 AM EST:
    “For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.
    “Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.” ‘

  27. FC:

    Elon is from South Africa. Jacob Zuma is the president of South Africa. This can’t be a coincidence.

  28. Dick Eagleson:

    Sure it can. Zuma is also the name of a very popular public beach in Malibu, CA.

  29. Paul Breed:

    Its possible it was some kind of reentry experiment?

  30. Dick Eagleson:

    Given that the 2nd stage of its launcher pretty unambiguously made orbit, and that USAF has assigned Zuma – dead or alive – an orbital object catalog number, I don’t think so. The government has traditionally launched re-entry vehicle experiments from Vandy and splashed them down in the Kwajalein lagoon.

  31. ken anthony:

    I don’t know if anyone provided this link.

    If the satellite failed, the DOD should be able to confirm that not “ask SpaceX.”

  32. rickl:

    The guy in the green shirt seems to be unfamiliar with the term “classified”. But I wonder why she didn’t tell him to ask Northrup Grumman as well?

  33. Beaneater:

    He is (I assume) familiar with the term “classified”, but he’s also laudably unwilling to take her BS answer. If she wants to fall back on “it’s classified”, then she should go all the way: “I’m not at liberty to answer that question in regard to a classified mission.” Fine.

    But to throw the ball into SpaceX’s court is bizarre and illogical. As the reporter correctly points out, the US Government is the customer here. He’s simply asking if the customer is satisfied. She can say, “No comment.” That would be OK. But to respond, “Ask the service provider if I, the customer, am satisfied,” is really odd.