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The Air Force is sticking by SpaceX after the Zuma mission

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But the classified Zuma satellite’s fate is still a mystery

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Zuma satellite into orbit.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Zuma satellite into orbit.
Image: SpaceX

Rumors have been circulating that something went wrong with the classified Zuma satellite that SpaceX launched on the tip of a Falcon 9 rocket two weeks ago. But few clues have emerged to explain what happened to the mysterious satellite. Now, comments from the US Air Force seem to suggest that if something did indeed go wrong, whatever it was, it might not have been SpaceX’s fault.

The Air Force certified SpaceX to conduct military missions in 2015. And for now, the company will keep its certification, Lieutenant General John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told Bloomberg. “Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status.” The Air Force appears to be saying — albeit, indirectly — that the failure wasn’t SpaceX’s (if, indeed, there was one).

Of course, the Air Force “will continue to evaluate data from all launches” — so that verdict could change. It’s also not clear what exactly would warrant SpaceX to lose its certification: the company’s Falcon 9 rocket suffered two major failures in 2015 and 2016 after SpaceX was certified. But so far, the Air Force’s position seems to square with what SpaceX’s president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said after the launch: “For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night.”

The other major player in the January 7th launch was aerospace tech firm Northrup Grumman, which built the mysterious satellite. Northrop Grumman also provided its own payload adaptor, which allows the satellite to separate from the top of the rocket and enter orbit. If that device failed, it could explain the rumors that the satellite and the rocket’s upper stage never separated, and instead fell back to Earth — burning up in the atmosphere.

Northrop Grumman declined to comment, Bloomberg reports. So without more clues, the rumors about the Zuma satellite will continue to remain just that: rumors.