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It’s Surprisingly Easy to Lose a Satellite, Even One Worth Millions

SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are hardly the first to lose track of an expensive space instrument.

SpaceX and Northrop Grumman are not having a good week. On Sunday, SpaceX launched a secret military satellite called Zuma from Florida into orbit. But the satellite, built by Northrop Grumman and owned by the U.S. government for classified purposes, was nowhere to be seen once SpaceX’s rocket carried the payload into space. At this point, the one thing that is clear is that Zuma failed to make it to orbit.

SpaceX quickly denied blame, with company COO Gwynne Shotwell releasing a statement saying its flagship Falcon 9 rocket “did everything correctly on Sunday night.” This is supported by the fact that the payload adaptor that works to release the satellite into orbit was not provided by SpaceX (as is common for most of the company’s missions), but by Northrop Grumman.

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So if the adaptor failed to release the payload, then the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket dragged the satellite back through Earth’s atmosphere unwittingly, and Northrop Grumman would be the party to blame for losing a government satellite reportedly worth as much as a billion. (For its part, the company has not publicly commented on the Zuma debacle, except to say: “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”)

The mystery of who’s to blame makes for a nice bit of drama that’s often missing from the space industry, but the truth is that while the failure of this mission cannot be understated, it’s actually not really that surprising. And that really comes down to the fact that getting to space is hard.

There were 91 launch attempts in 2017, and six were failures. That’s not high, but it’s significant. Imagine booking a flight and knowing there was a 6.6 percent chance it might crash. You’d probably cancel your trip and go back to binge-watching The Crown.

And that’s because there’s an incomprehensibly long list of things that could go wrong during launch, which SpaceX is no stranger to after a Falcon 9 exploded in midflight in 2015 and a launch pad test in 2016 destroyed both a rocket and a half-billion dollar Facebook satellite. Both of those events are quick examples of how small anomalies or flaws can cascade into disastrous results. And that’s understandable, because the sheer nature of launching things into space is a literally explosive process.

In addition, this is far from the first time an expensive satellite has been lost. Russia, the country whose Sputnik 1 was the first satellite ever launched, lost contact with a $45 million satellite just last year, and that’s just the latest in a long string of launch failures to plague the country in recent years. Japan lost contact with a $250 million astronomy satellite a month after launch in 2016. Closer to home, the U.S. military lost contact with a reconnaissance satellite in 2006 shortly after launch and had to shoot it down two years later.

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Sunday’s failure is going to hurt a lot more than those other losses, but perhaps it’s the high-profile development that might push the space industry forward in the long run. Rocket scientist and Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin told NBC News he compares the risks of spaceflight today to the risks of air travel in its infancy and that running more launches and missions will inevitably help teach all launch parties how to conduct safer space travel.

In addition, this might also be the incentive we need to push for more radical approaches to satellites. The advent of 3-D printing technology means we might soon just build our satellites directly in space and avoid the potential mess (and insane costs) that come with a rocket launch and payload deployment.

Nevertheless, the risks to any satellite will never fully go away.
Earth’s orbit will always be an unstable region for any object, thanks to continued atmospheric drag, solar wind, gravitational influences from outside Earth, the nuanced physics we still have a shaky grasp of. When it comes to space, there will always be a host of factors that can turn a routine mission into an aggravating setback.

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