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SpaceX denies losing spy satellite

SpaceX's main facility along Crenshaw Boulevard in Hawthorne, Calif. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell pushed back against reports that her company’s Falcon 9 rocket may have malfunctioned during Sunday’s launch of a classified spy satellite.

News reports said the satellite, named Zuma, may have plunged back toward Earth. But Shotwell reiterated in a statement Tuesday morning that “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,” she said. “Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false.”

The loss, if it was determined to be a failure of SpaceX hardware, could be a “real threat” to the company’s future defense business, said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.

Reports began to trickle in Monday afternoon that Zuma, which was said to be worth more than $1 billion, may have been lost after it was launched Sunday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard a SpaceX rocket.

Asked to comment, SpaceX — which is based in Hawthorne, Calif., and whose full name is Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — issued a statement Monday afternoon: “We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

A spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the satellite, said Monday: “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.” The company did not respond to additional requests for comment Tuesday.

There are conflicting reports about what may have happened.

Citing government and industry officials who were briefed on the mission, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday night that the satellite did not separate as intended after the firing of the rocket’s second stage. Instead, it plunged back into the atmosphere, according to the Journal.

Bloomberg reported Monday night, citing a U.S. official and two congressional aides familiar with the launch, that the Falcon 9’s second-stage booster section failed. One of the aides told Bloomberg that both the satellite and the rocket’s second stage fell into the ocean.

One possible key to SpaceX’s strong defense of its rocket could involve the question of who supplied a key piece of hardware: the payload adapter, which attaches a payload to the rocket. A November Wired article said Northrop Grumman provided the adapter to “mate” Zuma to the Falcon 9. SpaceX said it would not comment beyond its statement.

Adding to the mystery, the satellite, categorized as USA 280, was still listed as a payload on orbit by the U.S. space surveillance system as of Tuesday afternoon, said Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That means something made it into orbit and went around at least once, though it doesn’t necessarily mean the satellite is still there. The satellite could have stopped working on orbit — or, if it failed to separate from the second stage, it could have tumbled back toward Earth, she said.

If the satellite is no longer in orbit, she said the listing will eventually be removed when the catalog is updated.

Zuma was built for the U.S. government, although it is unclear which part of the government. SpaceX was originally set to launch the Zuma mission in November, but the company tweeted at the time that it was postponing the mission “to take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer.”

During a livestream of Sunday’s launch, SpaceX said it got successful confirmation that the fairing — the clamshell-like covering for payloads at the tip of the rocket — did deploy.

SpaceX is led by Elon Musk and has been rapidly expanding its launch business, which includes NASA, national security and commercial missions. SpaceX launched two other national security missions last year: a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office and the Pentagon’s autonomous space plane, known as the X-37B.

In 2015, SpaceX was certified by the U.S. Air Force to launch national security satellites. That broke up a longtime and lucrative monopoly held by a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. known as United Launch Alliance, which has had 100 percent mission success in its 123 launches.

“The most important issue here is whether the Pentagon will rethink its reliability as a provider of launch services,” said Thompson, whose think tank receives funding from Boeing and Lockheed.

But Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group, said SpaceX’s cheaper launch costs and faster turnarounds for missions will still probably work in its favor with the Air Force, even if the Zuma mission were determined to be a launch failure.

“I think the rocket itself is considered an extremely reliable vehicle,” he said.

On its website, SpaceX says it has more than 70 upcoming missions on its launch manifest, which could take several years. Last year, SpaceX completed 18 launches.

The company is preparing to launch its new Falcon Heavy rocket, made up of three Falcon 9 engine cores. Shotwell said in her statement the company “does not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule” at the end of the month since the data reviewed so far “indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed.”

She said the Falcon Heavy is still scheduled for a static fire test this week. SpaceX is also preparing for a Falcon 9 launch of a commercial communications satellite in three weeks.


© 2018 Los Angeles Times

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