What caused the failure of U.S. government’s secret mission Zuma?

Earlier this year, on 7 January, SpaceX propelled a secretive U.S government payload called Zuma aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Cape Canaveral, Florida to orbit. What was the special, secretly launched payload is still unknown, but the only known fact is that the payload was made by the Northrop Grumman and they refused to divulge any more information. Repeated attempts to extract answers from SpaceX and the Pentagon were also in vain.

Not long after the rocket was launched, the satellite had fizzled out, and the mission was pronounced a failure. It is reported that the Zuma payload failed to separate from the second stage of the rocket after it arrived in orbit. Following the pre-programmed instructions, the Falcon 9’s second stage engine reignited leave the orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, with Zuma still apparently attached to it. The program to send Falcon 9 back to the Earth was designed to ensure that the rocket does not remain floating in orbit and contribute to the already present immense amount of space junk.

Usually, the satellite missions do not attract as much attention of the media as the Zuma mission did due to its undercover nature, the snazzy name-Zuma and the buzz and disappointment after its failure.

The failure of nearly $3.5 billion mission was investigated by the two teams of government and the industry experts. The cause of its failure was unknown and was directed towards SpaceX for causing it. The in-depth investigation revealed that a payload adaptor, which is a structure used to attach a satellite to its rocket booster had failed to function correctly in an otherwise successful launch. It has been reported that the adaptor was purchased from a subcontractor and modified for the mission by the builder Northrop Grumman who had also built the payload. The modified payload was even put to the test three times on the ground. Zuma’s spacecraft was apparently vulnerable to shock and vibrations and the company revamped the payload adaptor to cushion the separation of Zuma once it reached Orbit but resulted in its failure.

The Government officials have exonerated SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in the loss of its top-secret mission and blamed the malfunction in a component modified by Northrop Grumman.

SpaceX has been entrusted with the launch of national security payloads in the past which includes spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, and an X-37B spaceplane intended for the U.S. Air Force, and it is a relief that it has been freed from suspicion and charges.