Something Went Wrong With SpaceX's Billion-Dollar Spy Satellite Launch And No One Wants To Take The Blame

Illustration for article titled Something Went Wrong With SpaceX's Billion-Dollar Spy Satellite Launch And No One Wants To Take The Blame

This past Sunday night, SpaceX launched into space what may have been the most important payload they’ve ever launched: a super-secret U.S. government satellite called Zuma. While the launch of the Falcon 9 rocket appeared to go okay, it now seems apparent that the Zuma satellite is lost, and so far neither SpaceX or the U.S. government is willing to take the blame.


The launch was one of the more secretive Falcon 9 launches, due to the sensitive nature of the payload. The spacecraft, built by Northrop Grumman, is classified, and what branch or agency of the government actually owns the thing hasn’t even been revealed. Zuma is rumored to be worth billions of dollars.

The launch seems to have gone fine initially, and a SpaceX representative told The Verge that:

“We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

Additionally, the Zuma spacecraft seems to have at least made it to orbit for a time, as it received a satellite catalog entry with the name USA 280. This just means it entered orbit. This does not mean that everything went fine.

In fact, the current theory seems to be that Zuma did not properly detach from the Falcon rocket’s second stage, and what entered orbit was both the satellite and the spent rocket stage, still connected.

Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics astronomer Jonathan McDowell suggests just this eventuality in a tweet:


It appears that the Zuma/second stage combo managed an orbit and a half before an unplanned de-orbit and destructive re-entry into the atmosphere.

What does seem to be agreed upon is that Zuma is gone. Who gets the blame is another question, with both Northrop Grumman and SpaceX pointing fingers at one another.


Northrop Grumman not only made the satellite, but also the adapter that held the satellite to the SpaceX rocket stage, which would put Northrop Grumman on the hot seat if it was determined that the problem was with the separation of Zuma from the rocket.

There will be an investigation, of that we can be sure.

There will, of course, be rumors that the loss of the spacecraft was a cover, designed to throw off America’s enemies, and the super-secret satellite is actually in place, doing whatever nefarious things it was built to do.


Astronomer McDowell wants to quash those rumors:


So, that’s one less thing you have to worry about. Maybe the thing just got tangled up in the bungee cords holding Elon’s Tesla roadster in the rocket.

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Given the nigh-unprecedented secrecy around Zuma, it’s hard to say anything with certainty; that said, In SpaceX fan circles at least the readings of the tea leaves seem to put the suspected failure squarely in Northrop Grumman’s court. As mentioned in the article, it’s known that NG built both the satellite and the payload adapter. It’s also believed that NG handled the integration of the payload with the upper stage, instead of SpaceX. For its part, SpaceX has put on a public show of claiming that Falcon 9, or at least the parts of it that they had control over, performed 100% nominally, and at the end of the launch they were supposedly in a celebratory mood that suggested they didn’t see anything concerning on their end.

There will no doubt be lots of finger-pointing to follow, but at the moment it looks pretty grim for Northrop.