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SpaceX payload code-named Zuma failed to reach orbit after Sunday launch (wsj.com)
104 points by themgt 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 133 comments

The headline is wrong. SpaceX says their mission (launch of the payload) was a success. The Northrup Grumman payload is responsible for the rest of the mission. SpaceX are literally only allowed to talk about their own rocket, since it's a classified mission. But the rocket made it to orbit and the upper stage deorbited in the same place as planned according to other observers.

Oh, and because it's a classified mission, we don't even know if the mission was INTENDED to stay in orbit. For all we know, it was a test of a reentry vehicle of some type. Additionally, off-the-record sources may just as well be lying about the result of the mission as they would be risking jailtime to leak results to reporters. This is a classified mission, no one is going to risk their job and their freedom just to make Andy Pasztor better able to troll SpaceX (which he has a long history of).

They may even be paid to intentionally spread misinformation (anonymously, so it can't be traced back) about the mission in order to protect the secrecy of the payload.

Additionally, SpaceX is continuing Falcon Heavy processing without skipping a beat, rolling out the vehicle just hours after mission completion. If there was a failure, there would be a stand-down to determine the cause before continuing.

. .

EDIT: I should point out that Northrop actually provided the payload adapter and handled integration: https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=43976.msg1...

> Additionally, SpaceX is continuing Falcon Heavy processing without skipping a beat, rolling out the vehicle just hours after mission completion. If there was a failure, there would be a stand-down to determine the cause before continuing.

I keep coming back to this part of your comment and I think its the most useful piece of non-classified data we have. Lots of possibilities of what happened here, for sure. The one sure conclusion we can draw from this is that SpaceX does not think the Falcon 9 failed. If they thought that there was an issue with the Falcon 9, you're correct that that would have caused a stop of the Heavy launch. Now, its possible SpaceX is wrong and there was an issue with the Falcon 9, its possible there was an issue with the payload or the payload separation or even possible that there was no issue at all. With all of the classified information on this one, we probably won't know for sure in our lifetimes but we can say one thing for sure. The people who do have access to the classified information do not think there was an issue of enough magnitude to delay the Falcon Heavy launch and I think that speaks volumes. If the mission had failed I think we would see at least a brief pause, even if SpaceX quickly decided that the failure was not theirs and continued. The fact that they are pushing on leads me to lean strongly in the direction of the mission actually being a success.

I would agree, except there's no customer for FH. Even if there's some small chance the 2nd stage will fail, a test of the three core first stage makes sense.

Having said that, I would be very surprised to find there was a failure of SpaceX hardware in the Zuma launch.

FAA won't let them launch if theres any possibility of a known issue. Even if there isn't a customer for this FH mission, FAA still has to certify the flight.

They wouldn't risk Elon's roadster.

More seriously, even just the PR cost and the actual cost would prevent them from launching.

The headline on the website of a major Australian newspaper right now [1] is: "Elon Musk's satellite 'disaster'".

"Expensive mistake: An expensive and highly secret satellite is missing after being launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX"

How the heck are we allowing reporters to "report" like this? Utter nonsense, and millions of people read this newspaper every day and assume they are being told facts.

[1] http://heraldsun.com.au/

Its a Rupert Murdoch owned paper, designed to get clicks from clickbait.

The value system in that market rewards inaccurate reporting. It's the same with politics. A million little resignations every day.

> How the heck are we allowing reporters to "report" like this?

It's the price we pay for freedom of press and expression. The alternative is screaming "fake news" everytime a journalist makes a mistake. Normal distribution applies in every profession, not all journalists are great

> It's the price we pay for [x]

Is this actually inevitable? Why and why should you pay this much?

grecy asks "How the heck are we allowing" and you reply "just pay because the only other choice is [unacceptable alternative]".

This does drive the price up, doesn't it? How does that help?

Plus :

>>> not all journalists are great

The paper was written by a journalist, proof read by another one, reviewed by the editor. There's no price to pay for intended click bait.

> The paper was written by a journalist, proof read by another one, reviewed by the editor.

This used to be the norm, I agree. Modern technology did wonders to streamline the publishing process. :)

> Is this actually inevitable?

Yes, it's actually inevitable. You either have free press or you don't. It's a binary value, one or zero, there is nothing in between. If you are willing to handle for the price of the free expression then we have fundamentaly different ideas about what freedom represents.

> You either have free press or you don't. It's a binary value, one or zero, there is nothing in between.

It's really not. Or, if it is, since the US clearly does not have a perfectly free press (and thus, if it's a binary value, has a zero not a one), nothing can be the price we pay for a free press, because we aren't getting a free press.

Now, if you say “its the price we pay for the degree of press freedom we have, and the loss of freedom necessary to avoid that cost is to high a price to pay for the cost avoided, that's an argument that can, at least, be reasonably discussed.

ok, back to the square one. English is not my native language, so sorry if my point doesn't get accross that well.

> How the heck are we allowing reporters to "report" like this?

keyword being "allowing". You either have a system where anyone needs to be "allowed" to write something or not.

> Or, if it is, since the US clearly does not have a perfectly free press (and thus, if it's a binary value, has a zero not a one), nothing can be the price we pay for a free press, because we aren't getting a free press.

In US you are generally not required to be "allowed" to write something. That for me is the definition of freedom of expression. As soon as you are required to be "allowed" to publish you don't have that freedom. The system is not perfect, but that imperfection is created by players (content producers and consumers) inside the system, not by artifical regulation from above.

Now we can discuss whether this "allowing" was meant as a call for action meaning: "don't support low-quality journalism" - in that case I agree, I am trying to avoid supporting low-quality press by not giving its publishers my money or my time. But if by "allowing" was meant that some wise know it all independent authority should be set up to allow certain things to be published and not allow some other things to be published, now that's the point where the discussion ends for me. There is nothing to discuss there, you simply lost your freedom. game over.

A bit like calling the National Enquirer a “major American newspaper”.

What you are saying seems preposterous and fails Occam's Razor badly. It seems you and many others in this thread can't accept that maybe SpaceX is fallible and can make mistakes and you are formulating fantastic conspiracy theories to support your view.

SpaceX has no reason to lie about this. If they were caught lying then it would do irreparable damage to their reputation as a launch provider.

Aye, but their second stage and payload delivery have been fiercely reliable. That the client had a custom adapter seems perfect occam-bait in this case.

Ok so they have been fiercely reliable, so what? Fiercely reliable is not infallible. Then it is more likely that SpaceX is going along with a cover-up and the black eye and tarnished image coming from the loss of a billion dollar payload just to help out their customer's secrecy? That seems even more unbelievable and complicated than equipment failure.

How does SpaceX get tarnished reputation out of this? Anyone who follows spaceflight at all recognizes their behavior as confirming "rocket operated nominally" scenario.

Their FH introduction and previous failures (or even found pre-launch issues) show they are not afraid of standdowns/delays for the sake of future missions assurance.

SpaceX has never hidden their failures. SpaceX says the rocket performed "nominally" (aerospace speak for "it worked just fine"). You believe SpaceX is lying about that?

SpaceX's President released a statement that the rocket 'did everything right' and that they are proceeding with the rest of their launch manifest as planned.


> They may even be paid to intentionally spread misinformation (anonymously, so it can't be traced back) about the mission in order to protect the secrecy of the payload.

Tinfoil hat squeezing too tight? A billion dollar for a way to find out internal mole? Think not.

Honestly, I don't fear AI coming and enslaving humans, like Musk claims... I fear Musk sending these secret satellites that are paid by with my tax dollars.

There seems to be an active astroturf campaign against SpaceX and Tesla.

"Legit conspiracy theory time. How do you put a satellite in orbit without anyone knowing about it? You hide it with another satellite!

Apparently, during the first launch window for Zuma back on November 15, a secretive US satellite tracked as "USA-276" was due to fly directly overhead under conditions ideal for a rendezvous. USA-276 itself is secretive and unusual, having passed as close as four miles from the ISS. It seems like the NRO (or whoever actually built it) has a lot of confidence in their control over that satellite and its maneuverability.

The rescheduled launch window for Zuma seemed to rule out a rendezvous with USA-276; the launch inclination was expected to be similar, but the satellite wouldn't be passing overhead at the time. However, several days of launch delays coincidentally moved Zuma's launch window closer and closer to lining up with USA-276's orbit. The earlier launch windows could have been decoys, intended to suggest a willingness to launch away from USA-276 when it remained their goal the whole time.

What are the reasons for this? Well, if USA-276 is meant to be a highly maneuverable satellite, it could potentially burn through fuel quickly. Testing the ability to refuel an unmanned spy satellite would be highly valuable. If you made the rendezvous quickly, you could claim your refueling drone was "lost" and it would be hard to disprove. We're not yet at the point that civilians can track the exact location of every satellite at all times without government help (hell, we can still lose highly advanced jumbo jets in the middle of the ocean). Once the refueling drone is docked with USA-276, they would be tracked as a single object in orbit.

Why claim it's lost, then? To try to hide that you have this ability. That's especially relevant when you consider the repeated close passes USA-276 has made to the ISS. It seems like a satellite meant to surveil other satellites, which would be more valuable if it had ample fuel and could make orbital changes more frequently. You'd only get one real shot at it before the element of surprise is lost, but if you had a maneuverable satellite with ample fuel on board, you could go take close-up photos of a few Russian satellites before they realized what you were doing. Hell, maybe even get close enough to grab one and deorbit it."


>How do you put a satellite in orbit without anyone knowing about it? You hide it with another satellite!

Heh. There was a Russian launch recently where a piece of "debris" started moving under its own power after stage separation.


That article has no date attached. I find that infuriating.

Not unusual for aggregation sites like that, unfortunately. The FT article it in turn does cite has a dateline of November 17, 2014.


The year is also reflected in the naming of the object, by the way: Object 2014-28E.

Honestly given all the weird stuff that happened with this satellite this doesn’t seem too far fetched. The fact that it got way too close to the iss, and that zuma aligned with its orbit not just once but both scheduled launch attempts seems way too fishy for me.

Given all this incredibly unusual activity, especially given how big and separated everything in space usually is, this is honestly the most reasonable theory I have seen so far. The more I think about it the more it makes sense.

>Hell, maybe even get close enough to grab one and deorbit it.

No way they could do this without being observed. And that would be considered an act of war.

Interesting there about refueling, apparently it completed at least one orbit according to Spacetracks...

From twitter, Dr Marco Langbroek:

> (1/5) About the rumours that #Zuma or its Falcon 9 failed: I have a positive, photographically documented observation of the Falcon 9 upper stage venting fuel after re-entry burn, ahead of re-entry, over East Africa some 2h15m after launch. Pretty much where it ought to be.


I have the feeling that this whole story about the failure is a textbook case of misinformation, which is understandable since Musk has mentioned that this is "the most important mission (that SpaceX has undertaken)" and that it's all very heavily classified..

"Photographically documented observation" is probably this one -


I am suspicious whenever I hear of a "failed" deployment of a top-secret payload.

Here are the archives of SeeSat-L, a visual satellite observer's network[1]. This will be the place to look for the latest observations on the mission. Are there any other sources out there?

[1] http://www.satobs.org/seesat/Jan-2018/index.html

What would be the motivation though. I presume that nation states with an interest in the mission would have Ways and Means of verifying that it's operational (or not) -- whether by their own space-based observations or other methods.

For everyone else: what's the point of suggesting that there was a failure? It doesn't make anyone look good, least of all their highly visible commercial launch supplier SpaceX (who're unlikely to want to be blamed for any sort of 'fake' failure that they can't disclaim responsibility for either way), or N.G., or the agencies involved.

> I presume that nation states with an interest in the mission would have Ways and Means of verifying that it's operational (or not)

A skilled amateur astronomer can verify a satellite's orbit and if it appears to be maintaining attitude control. If you want to hide what you're satellite is up to, you call it a weather satellite and go on with your day.

Stealth satellites are a thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misty_(satellite)

Not sure about actual effectiveness, though.

Well, there are plenty of places on the globe out of sight from any private ground based observation (or, any ground based observation at all, I'd bet). Applying delta while flying over the pacific ocean would do the job.

This would still get picked up by the early warning systems of rival nations (i.e. Russia). You can't hide a launch. You CAN pretend it failed, though.

> there are plenty of places on the globe out of sight from any private ground based observation

I suppose. That also means the bird can't see the ground.

(You can't avoid any ground-based observation, as in from land or sea, unless you hide behind the Moon or at L1, i.e. between the Sun and the Earth. Getting to either would be easily detectable, though.)

Sure you can't avoid any theoretical ground-based observation -- my point is there are plenty of places on Earth that don't actually have them -- or don't have any available to amateurs or organisations without access to exceptional resources.

> For everyone else: what's the point of suggesting that there was a failure? It doesn't make anyone look good...

Making SpaceX look like a failure is entirely the point. It is very possible to profit in the stock market by making people look bad.

SpaceX is a private company

Its competitors are not.

their competitors are not

Normally I’d chuckle, but with this who the hell knows?! I can think of a number of sound reasons to lie, but then again, it’s hardly unheard of to lose a payload. I guess we’ll have to see what happens with SpaceX in relation to the military to get a sense of it.

There is no stealth in space though. If you're in orbit and larger than a paint chip, somebody's tracking you. Consequently, lying about the success of the launch is silly. A million things could have gone wrong though.


  Misty is reported to have optical and radar stealth
  characteristics, making it difficult for adversaries to
  detect (and thus predict the times it would fly overhead).
  Almost everything about the program is classified

It's a spy satellite, they probably painted it in camouflage.

> The sightings of the Falcon 9 upper stage from the Zuma launch venting fuel over East Africa some 2h 15m after launch, suggests that Zuma might be in a higher orbit than in my pre-launch estimate. Rather than ~400 km it might be ~900-1000 km.


> If correct, this means Zuma might become observable in the N hemisphere about a week from now.


I used to work on satellites and so I know how sad a day this is for some people. Think of the team that would be involved in a billion dollar NASA probe. There would be thousands of people involved from component manufacture to ground control to data processing to ground stations. A team just like that has just had more than 5 years of their life's work go up in smoke. Classified or not, it's still a sad day for space engineers today.

I’ve never worked on satellites but isn’t the engineering not lost at all? What’s lost is all the manufacturing and verification that went into this one copy. Wouldn’t manufacturing a second copy be like an order of magnitude less effort/cost? Or is the cost of a satellite mostly just manufacturing?

It ends up being a question of time and cost. Even if you make no changes to the design, the construction and verification of a new copy will still take years (verification of space payloads this expensive takes FOREVER!) and likely still cost hundreds of millions of dollars. I wasn't involved in the finance side of things but I'd guess that at least 40% of the effort would need to be duplicated for a project that size.

But most likely, technology will have progressed in the meantime and you'll want more accurate sensors or more powerful on payload data processing or more powerful/efficient radios so you can get more of the data to the ground. Spy satellites only have a useful life of around 20 years due to obsolescence of sensors. So you're going to end up wanting to upgrade the new one so you don't just lose 1/4 of it's useful life. So you'll probably end up designing a lot of parts again.

I too have no experience with satellites, but I imagine a project may not be able to survive the financial burden of a loss.

I used to know someone involved in launch insurance. It's a thing. Presumably not one available to super secret squirrel launches like this, though (although one might guess that Northrop could sort something out).

Launch insurance can absolutely be given to classified payloads. My understanding of the launch insurance business is you say "my payload is worth $(X)XXX million to me and we're launching on this type of rocket" and the insurers look at the history of that rocket and your history as a payload manufacturer and charge you a 10-40% premium that gets built into the cost to the government.

My favorite theory is that they switched Zuma and Elon's car. Think about it, they were both at the Cape and Zuma actually switched launch pads to LC40 from LC39A (where Falcon is preparing to launch as we speak with the REAL Zuma). :D

Okay, that's funny, but something like that isn't impossible. Remember the Glomar Explorer? These black project agencies are past masters of the big con.

Plus, video footage of the car in space could have been obtained in this launch, then conveniently released after Falcon Heavy launch. Neat conspiracy theory!

Note that the US government has been known to launch satellites with optical and radar stealth. (From what I understand, the Misty series had this.)

What better way to hide a stealth satellite than to launch a satellite-shaped object of the same mass as the real thing, separate out the real deal, and claim the object is a failed satellite?

We don't even know which agency launched ZUMA, and there's no obligation for them to tell the press if it worked or not.


More information/speculation for anyone interested:

"The first of these satellites is known as the USA-53 or Misty satellite. This stealth satellite’s design means that it is incredibly difficult to detect or locate. This satellite is thought to have been developed to keep an eye on the Soviets and their concealment of weaponry. If this satellite is still really in place it remains classified information. Allegedly launched in 1990 (on board Space Shuttle Atlantis, STS-36), was a payload which remains top secret but openly known is that the mission was dedicated to the Department of Defense. Aviation Week magazine announced the satellite on-board was an imaging reconnaissance satellite. Amateur astronomers tracked the Shuttle and its payload and measured the satellite’s magnitude at -1, which was quite bright compared to normal imaging satellites.

A week after launch, reports were released from the Soviets that six bits of debris had been detected suggesting an explosion had occurred. The Pentagon announced that any debris would decay after six weeks. The amateur astronomers and observers that were tracking this object only catalogued five out of the six pieces. Six months later an unidentified satellite was discovered in orbit on a similar trajectory to that of the classified payload was released, leading the satellite spotters to suspect it was the missing piece, nick-named Misty. However a couple of noticeable manoeuvres later, Misty disappeared again. Perhaps the ‘explosion’ was a decoy to put Misty into place unbeknownst to the Russians."

What is the advantage of stealth on an observational satellite?

Are the Russians really moving equipment out of sight every [orbital period here]? Or locating equipment out of the observational path?

Elsewhere in the comments, there is speculation of trying to hide an orbital refueling capability. This also seems like an obvious capability to already have, given the automated docking procedures used on the ISS for many years now.

> We don't even know which agency launched ZUMA, and there's no obligation for them to tell the press if it worked or not.

This is outrages, as in the USA we should not have reason to do thing in the shadow or complete dark. What do they have to hide?

They might not tell the press but since its my tax dollars getting burned, I will call my congressman tomorrow and demand they will explain how my dollars are spent, and what was the purpose of this satellite.

This is speculation based on rumour. We don’t even know if Zuma was something other than a block of concrete.

Wait until Northrop Grumman or their secret customer releases an official report. Otherwise the facts are that Falcon 9 delivered a secret payload to orbit, landed the first stage, and SpaceX is now preparing for three more launches this month.

Can HN please stick to facts and leave rumour-mongering to other groups?

There won't be an official report. No one knows who paid for building it, other than it was a US government agency. The NRO has no problems acknowledging it's launches, but it doesn't claim Zuma.

Those are the facts we know. the CNBC report is based on their sources, making it a bit more than rumor-mongering.

Here’s how we go from “sourced facts” to “rumour mongering” in one step:

Hypothetical Facts: upon fairing separation the super secret payload was able to establish communication with in-orbit trusted stations, and no longer needed to communicate through the fairing or other non-trusted stations. So it turned off its radios and other EMI producing communications systems. Secret satellite operation base was able to establish control of satellite through secure optical in-orbit communications. Payload adaptor successfully deploys the satellite and neither SpaceX nor Northrop Grumman has any further involvement with the satellite.

Source: SpaceX lost communication with the payload immediately after fairing separation.

CNBC: SpaceX destroyed the super secret spy satellite

Or it's all disinformation... dun dun dunnn

Sure, that's what they want you to think.

Why bother? No one knows what is on the satellite anyway.

Perhaps foreign governments have suspicions, and whatever agency sent it up wants them to think that it failed.

The facade is only going to last another week if the payload is in orbit and stable (at which point anyone with a telescope will be able to see it).

Otherwise, there was a failure on the Northrop Grumman side of the house (they were responsible for mating the payload to the second stage adaptor at their facility due to the classified nature) or this was an ICBM reentry vehicle demonstrator.

If you listen during the launch stream, you can hear where video telemetry control is relinquished and passed off to secure ops. That telemetry should make it obvious if fault needs to be assigned.

It is not yet certain this is not a misinformation campaign (which would not be without precedent [1]).

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misty_(satellite)

Yeah, those foreign spies will never catch on to this ruse — not like us intrepid HN commenters.

There certainly exist people that do.

Okay....I meant 'the public isn't aware'.

It should go without saying that the satellite didn't design and assemble itself at this point in time.

Are SpaceX paid extra for this service? Would we know if they were?

Russia satellite launch failure recently. Someone configured the launch system with the wrong pad location, apparently.

For a foreign power, the cost of infiltrating and sabotaging a $5-10 billion satellite launch is such a bargain that it would be hard to pass up. These systems are so complex, so all it would take is exploiting one flaw per project.

What does the word "nominally" even mean in this context (performed "nominally")? This word has permeated through technical discourse lately. My coworkers use it excessively, usually understood as "on average" or "to a first approximation", but the word itself literally means "in name only". It's just a technical-sounding word engineers use to indicate they're guessing or don't have numbers to back something up, and to me that's exactly how it reads here, too.

In aeronautics it means, roughly, 'within acceptable tolerances', or, in other words, 'as expected'. For a good analysis of this sense of the meaning, see this StackExchange answer [1] to this question.

[1] https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/184876/how-did-n...

Yup, found that. Makes sense now. Still think my coworkers are using it incorrectly. Probably has something to do with the fact that our boss uses it frequently as well.

FWIW, what your coworkers are doing is one of the ways that language slowly changes. By them misunderstanding the true meaning of the word and applying it in a slightly different, but distinct sense, the word is undergoing semantic drift [1] in their circles.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_change

Permeated technical discourse lately? By lately, do you mean since the 1960s? "Nominal" in engineering means that the predicted value matches the expected value without significant error.

In this context it means "as expected", nothing out of the ordinary. Sense 5 here:

> "5 : being according to plan : satisfactory everything was nominal during the launch"


"Approximate" is one of the several meanings [1] of the word. Another is "being according to plan".

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nominal

I found https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/nominal

See the "engineering" context: "According to plan or design; normal."

It's possible this is misinformation.

This headline could be misleading. Based on the limited information so far, all indications are that SpaceX’s mission was a success (payload delivery to a given orbit). But we have precious little to go on, and won’t have visual confimation of anything in the predicted orbit for a couple weeks.

archive.is is great for getting around paywalls too


To me, it has always meant "performed the task that was named." For example, nominal performance for lift-off means that the rocket lifter off the launch pad. If it exploded two feet after lift-off, it's still a nominal lift-off. The sudden and unexpected vehicle disassembly following lift-off is a separate issue that would be dealt with as such. That has always been my understanding of "nominal performance" anyway.

In this case the task named was "get the payload to a specific orbit" and the parameters of that orbit.

The thing is, you can't really be sure that this lack of orbit wasn't desired.

>The payload was suspected to have burned up in the atmosphere after failing to separate perfectly from the upper part of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

>A SpaceX spokesman told the news service: "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally."

They are already blaming each other. So if this ends up in court how does that work? Do they find a cleared jury?

Um, blaming each other? WSJ doesn't know crap. For all we know, the mission was a complete success. And why would someone tell the WSJ otherwise while risking jailtime? Classified mission.

This headline is BS. Which makes sense, as it's written by Andy Pasztor, a well-known SpaceX troll.

I don't see why its so far fetched that a republican staffer who is anti SpaceX would leak a report (or contents of it) to an anti SpaceX journalist. Northrop is trying to save face so of course they are going to point the finger at SpaceX.

Not for classified info, they wouldn't.

Also, Northrop didn't point any fingers at SpaceX. They can't even say anything about the mission as it's classified.

Pick up a newspaper. Classified info is leaked practically daily.

When you lose a billion dollars you are pointing the finger at someone else. This is true in general business and especially with government money.

Clearly it was not a success. Lawmakers were briefed on a failure because it was a failure.

Payload seems to have failed to separate and it burned in the atmosphere. Failure to separate is almost certaionly on SpaceX.

No, SpaceX clearly said it was a success, and that the rocket performed nominally as planned. [s]Payload separation is part of rocket performance, so that means that it performed as planned.[/s](EDIT:Just kidding. Payload adapter was provided by Northrop, so actually separation was Northrop's responsibility. Normally, SpaceX provides the adapter and would be responsible.) Lawmakers would be briefed if it were a classified mission with a misinformation campaign, too.

This is a successful SpaceX launch (and assuming payload sep was even planned, it would've been performed by Northrop Grumman's payload adapter).

EDIT: I should point out that Northrop actually provided the payload adapter and handled integration: https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=43976.msg1...

>Failure to separate is almost certaionly on SpaceX.

One thing to note here, the payload adapter was made by Northrop Grumman instead of SpaceX. If the payload adapter itself failed then that's not on SpaceX even though normally the payload adapter is something that they provide.

There is no blaming going on. SpaceX was contracted to lift Northrop Grumman’s mission into orbit. NG’s mission included their own payload adaptor.

If the payload adaptor failed to deploy the payload correctly, the payload would still be attached to the second stage and upon reentry of the latter NG’s mission would be along for the ride.

This is a top secret mission, nobody is officially saying anything about a failure, it's all just 3rd party speculation.

> "We do not comment on missions of this nature"

...but we'll happily take their money. Maybe I am too much of an idealist but it disappoints me that the greater goals of SpaceX are being partly funded by 'dark dollars'.

I'd much prefer that they left that money on the table and just worked with commercial contracts, instead of associating with the sort of agencies that need secret launches.

That's a great question. I bet the DoD does something like investigate and place fault with an independent way to appeal the ruling.

I bet they don't because it's classified.

log/telemetry information I imagine.

I'd be surprised if SpaceX didn't have in their contracts that "all results are based on the source of truth. the source of truth that you accept is this telemetry data" All care no responsibility essentially.

Clickbait. Mission did not fail.

I guess we'll deduce the outcome from whether SpaceX will get further similar contracts.

I never understood this, if they are launching a secret satellite, isn't announcing it to the world defeating the purpose of its secrecy? Why can't they say we launched "weather satellite"

or am I missing something?

All launches must be coordinated through the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs even secret ones.

Spy satellites are regularly tracked by amateur astronomers. There's a bit of a community in finding and sharing their orbital parameters.

In addition to what others have said, during the Cold War there was a concern that the Soviets would freak out if they saw any unexpected rocket launches. Early rockets in particular were just souped up ICBMs

Location and trajectories of all satellites have to be closely tracked to avoid collisions.

It’s always possible someone in the control room rotated the antenna away from earth making impossible to talk to. Heard of this happening before.

They should put two antenas, one on each side, to ensure this doesn't happen :P

Lost, or in stealth mode.

So was this an error with the payload or the rocket?

(From the cnbc link: ) A SpaceX spokesman told the news service: "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally."

It seems it was a failure of the payload to cleanly detach from the rocket. This launch was a little unusual in that the manufacturer supplied both the payload and the payload adapter (the bit that does the detaching), and handled all the integration.

Generally SpaceX supplies the adapter, and handles the integration. So, if it turns out it was a payload separation issue, that's still not on SpaceX (despite the fact that it would be in a "normal" launch).

Is the rocket reusable though?

I guess no video?

I'm sure there is video but it wasn't and won't be made public.

The payload was Captain America. He’s safely been deployed. There was no “satellite”.

Yeah, the payload is lost. Lost I tell you.

How can it be lost? Don't they have a tracking device on it?

Can't tell if you are being serious or not, but assuming the satellite didn't burn up and re-enter the atmosphere, they probably know exactly where the satellite is. But, if there are bad control parameters, for example maybe it is spinning wildly, they can't communicate with it because the radios can never get a lock on each other.

I am being completely serious - not sure why I got downvoted? Yes, I understand that it probably burned upon re-entry, but then it's not lost but rather burned. "Lost" makes it sound like they lost in the ocean and can't find it anymore. So I was confused by the article.

And thanks for clarifying regarding the bad control parameters.

PS: Also, when I added this comment, the title of this was "U.S. Spy Satellite Believed Lost After SpaceX Mission Fails"

It would be nice if the article told you how many successful missions SpaceX has launched.

I see failed mission articles on HN every once in a while. I have no idea if this is business as usual, or SpaceX is a company with serious quality issues.

They're on about 50 launches, and about 40 with regular payloads rather than their in-house capsule. The second stage and payload deliver has - to date - a 100% success record. It's a great bit of kit.

The failures have been first-stage related, thus far, and now possibly customer-adapter related. I can't comment on how many other non-capsule launches have custom adapters, but SpaceX do make and use their own usually. To a first approximation, maybe 10% are non-standard?

It's hard to determine an acceptable loss/win ratio in this space though. SpaceX is surely pushing a lot of boundaries, with some big winds and losses. I think speculation about what sort of losses are "okay" is mostly editorializing.

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