Speculation Rampant As Secretive Zuma Spy Satellite Declared A 'Total Loss'

Wednesday, 10 Jan, 2018

SpaceX on Tuesday defended the performance of one of its rockets used to launch a US spy satellite that is believed to have been lost after failing to reach orbit, adding that no changes were anticipated to its upcoming launch schedule.

A SpaceX spokesperson told Business Insider, "We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally". If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately.

Northrop Grumman - which provided the satellite for an undisclosed USA government entity - says it can not comment on classified missions.

The Falcon's first stage completed its job, lifting the rocket off the pad and toward space, then separated and landed back at Cape Canaveral. All that is known about it publicly is that it was built by Northrop Grumman for a USA government customer, but not which agency ordered it. Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. While SpaceX maintains that the Falcon 9 launch vehicle performed as expected, it appears that the satellite isn't functioning.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this situation occurs when a satellite is released at the wrong time or is damaged.

SpaceX televised the launch and landing of the first stage, but did not provide coverage of the second stage firing or orbital insertion of the satellite, as it often does, because of the classified nature of the mission.

SpaceX's Shotwell said in a statement that since no rocket changes are warranted for upcoming flights, the company's launch schedule remains on track.

SpaceX is slated to demonstrate the maiden flight of Falcon Heavy, a larger and more powerful rocket, later this month. The payload from Northrop Grumman was a secret, and therefore it's hard to get any facts about its status. SatTrackCam Leiden is an amateur satellite tracking station in Leiden, the Netherlands.

For example, Northrop Grumman provided its own payload adaptor for the Zuma mission - a device that physically separates the satellite from the upper part of the rocket during deployment.

Or, the Bloomberg and WSJ accounts are correct, and there was some kind of failure during the second stage. Other possibilities include the satellite not powering up at separation (which means it's still in orbit, but dead) or that Zuma accidentally oriented itself in an orbit that sent it plummeting towards Earth. If the test is successful, a launch date could be scheduled very soon. Highly unlikely, to be sure - but it'd sure be nice to know what the hell actually happened.