Last week, SOFREP reported on what was to be SpaceX’s first launch of the year: a mysterious payload funded by the federal government and provided by Northop Grumman. For some reason, SpaceX was treating this mission with more secrecy than any previous launch, including those conducted for the National Reconnaissance Office and even deployment missions for the Air Force’s secretive X-37B. The mysteries surrounding SpaceX’s Zuma mission have only grown since it took to the skies however, as the payload is now being reported as a total loss… with SpaceX claiming unequivocally that they were not responsible for the failure.
The classified satellite is now believed to have burned up on reentry, after failing to separate from the Falcon 9’s second stage. If SpaceX is to blame, the ramifications could be significant. SpaceX employees speaking on the condition of anonymity have reported that Musk himself refereed to the Zuma mission as “the most important thing the company has ever launched,” and estimates from numerous sources within the organization place the value of the Zuma payload at right around one billion dollars.
When asked for a statement, Northrop Grumman spokespeople would only say, “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”
Peter B. de Selding, a reporter for Space Intel Report, first broke that the classified satellite appeared to be “dead in orbit after seperation” on Sunday, apparently citing anonymous government sources. Since then, a number of outlets have been able to confirm the failure of the satellite, but questions remain as to what exactly caused the failure – especially after SpaceX released a statement suggesting that there had been no failure in the Falcon 9 platform used to ferry the payload into orbit.
For clarity: 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. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.” Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO of SpaceX said in a statement.
She went on to clarify that, because SpaceX sees no reason to suspect that the failure was their own, there will be no change in SpaceX schedule, to include the impending static fire testing of the Falcon Heavy, which promises to be the new flagship of the private space-faring company.
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. 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. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.”
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, supports the SpaceX account of events, despite a number of media outlets reporting the failure of the SpaceX second stage. According to his data, the Zuma payload may have successfully completed at least orbit of the earth, which contradicts reports of a SpaceX failure.
Space-Track has cataloged the Zuma payload as USA 280, international designation 2018-001A. Catalog number 43098. No orbit details given. No reentry date given, but for a secret payload it might not be. Implication is Space-Track thinks it completed at least one orbit.” McDowell wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
The first stage of the Falcon 9 tasked with the Zuma mission successfully returned to its landing site after the launch, which backs up SpaceX’s claim that the failure was not their own. As for what actually happened to the Zuma mission’s mysterious payload, however; it’s possible that we’ll never know.
Image courtesy of SpaceX