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Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?

Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?


Conflicting reports say the satellite fell out of the sky

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

Late Sunday night, SpaceX appeared to successfully launch a classified satellite named Zuma for some unknown government agency — but it’s possible the mysterious spacecraft may have been lost once in space. Rumors started circulating on Monday that the satellite malfunctioned when it reached orbit, and both the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg have reported that Zuma actually fell back to Earth and burned up in the planet’s atmosphere. So what really happened to the satellite? No one is speaking up on the record, but it seems clear that something went wrong.

Because of the secretive nature of the mission, SpaceX did not show the entire Zuma mission during its livestream. Typically for its commercial flights, the company will show the launch all the way through to the payload’s deployment into orbit. However, the Zuma webcast did not broadcast the separation of the nose cone, which surrounds the satellite during launch, nor did it show the satellite being deployed. SpaceX has censored its livestreams like this before with other classified government payloads that the company has launched. But usually SpaceX or the government agency its working with will confirm a successful mission afterward. So doubts started circulating late Sunday night when neither SpaceX nor Northrop Grumman — the manufacturer of the Zuma satellite — confirmed if the launch was successful.

No one is speaking up on the record, but it seems clear that something went wrong

Now Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal report that lawmakers and government officials have been briefed on Zuma’s demise. However both publications offer unclear information from their sources about what happened. One Bloomberg source says that the upper stage of the Falcon 9 failed, while both WSJ and Bloomberg claim the spacecraft did not separate from the rocket.

When reached for comment, SpaceX said that the Falcon 9 rocket, which carried Zuma to orbit, performed as it was supposed to. “We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally,” a SpaceX spokesperson told The Verge. A lot of information is packed in that statement. SpaceX is essentially saying that the Falcon 9 pulled off all the tasks it’s supposed to perform during a mission. That typically includes launch, the separation of the rocket’s two stages, and deployment of the satellite into its intended orbit. And as viewers saw Sunday night, the Falcon 9’s first stage pulled off another successful landing after launch — indicating that the rocket was in full working order.

However, SpaceX’s statement seems to directly contradict what the Wall Street Journal is reporting. In its report, WSJ says that the Zuma satellite fell back to Earth because it didn’t separate from the upper part of the rocket. But if the rocket performed normally, as SpaceX said it did, then that would seemingly mean the spacecraft separated from the Falcon 9 (though more on that later). And the rocket definitely should have got the satellite to its intended orbit.

This morning, SpaceX’s president and COO Gwynne Shotwell doubled down on SpaceX’s original statement. “For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” she said. “If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false.” She added that the company cannot comment further due to the classified nature of the mission.

Further complicating matters is that an object that was most likely the satellite was seen in orbit by the US Strategic Command after the SpaceX launch. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center tracks all artificial objects orbiting Earth using an array of ground-based radars and telescopes known as the Space Surveillance Network, and maintains an active catalogue of these satellites. Following SpaceX’s launch, a new entry was made in the catalogue on for a US satellite designated USA 280. That likely means someone within Strategic Command added Zuma to the catalogue after the satellite completed an orbit. However, there’s not a lot of further information about the track or whether the satellite is still up there.

“For secret satellites, they don’t give us the orbit path, but they do make a catalogue entry,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight expert, tells The Verge. “It gets a catalogue number and a national designation. And the fact that an entry is there should imply that a payload got into orbit and completed at least one orbit around the Earth.” On top of that, there is a reported sighting of the Falcon 9’s upper stage re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, at about the time it should have following a successful launch.

However, Strategic Command is also saying that it has “nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time,” according to Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, a spokesperson for the command, who spoke with Bloomberg. That could mean that the center has nothing to add beyond the new satellite entry or that the USA 280 entry was added by mistake. Strategic Command did not immediately return The Verge’s request for comment.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 taking off with Zuma on board
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 taking off with Zuma on board
Image: SpaceX

So what actually happened? No one is saying for certain, but there are a couple scenarios in which the Falcon 9 could have performed as it was supposed to and the spacecraft didn’t deploy correctly. Typically, SpaceX uses its own hardware on top of its rocket to send a satellite into orbit, what is known as a payload adapter. It’s an apparatus that physically separates the satellite from the upper part of the rocket and sends it into orbit. However, a previous report from Wired noted that Northrop Grumman provided its own payload adapter for this mission. And if that payload adapter failed, it would have left the satellite still attached to the upper portion of the rocket. That’s certainly a mission failure, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the fault of the Falcon 9.

“This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”

Of course, Northrop Grumman won’t comment on the launch. “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions,” Lon Rains, communications director for Northrop, said in a statement to The Verge. But a payload adapter failure would explain a lot: it would mean the spacecraft and the rocket’s upper stage made it to orbit still attached, where they were picked up by Strategic Command’s tracking. Then the two somehow de-orbited, on accident or maybe even on purpose — it’s possible SpaceX used the rocket to send the pair careening toward Earth, since Zuma was not designed to live in orbit with a rocket strapped to its back.

A number of other scenarios are still on the table, too, seeing as how no one is confirming what actually happened on the record and reports from publications contradict one another. For instance, Bloomberg reports that the Falcon 9’s upper stage failed, contradicting what SpaceX is saying. So perhaps the satellite was deployed into a lower orbit than expected and got dragged down to Earth. Or maybe the satellite somehow malfunctioned and accidentally maneuvered itself on a path toward the planet. Or the spacecraft is still up there but just unresponsive — a cold box zooming around Earth.

Amateur astronomers might be able to search for Zuma in the weeks ahead. “The amateurs haven’t seen it and there’s no prospect of seeing it for a few weeks, because it’s not in the right sunlight conditions,” says McDowell. But they might not find anything if it’s not up there.

Until someone speaks on the record, it’s hard to know for sure. Meanwhile, SpaceX is pretty pleased with the launch. The company has been tweeting pictures from the mission, indicating that all went well. Plus, SpaceX rolled out its new Falcon Heavy rocket to its primary launchpad for an upcoming test, which probably wouldn’t have happened if there was a major issue with the company’s rocket hardware. “Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule,” Shotwell added in her statement. “Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight.” 

But since Zuma is a classified mission, it seems doubtful we’ll get a straight answer. It’s possible that there’s a dead government satellite in orbit right now, but it seems likely it succumbed to Earth’s atmosphere over the weekend.

Update January 9th, 9:30AM ET: This article was updated to include statements from SpaceX’s President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, and information about the Falcon 9’s upper stage re-entering Earth’s atmosphere.