Has the US government already lost its mysterious Zuma satellite?

9 Jan 2018

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket taking off with the Zuma payload on board, now believed to be lost. Image: SpaceX

After a launch shrouded in mystery, the US government’s Zuma satellite may already be lost, with no one willing to talk about it.

Yesterday (8 January), it was reported that SpaceX had successfully launched its latest payload into orbit aboard its Falcon 9 reusable rocket. All that was known of its contents was that it contained a US military craft dubbed ‘Zuma’.

The secretive project was to launch a Northrop Grumman satellite into space, but its exact intentions remain unknown as SpaceX prevented its usual live stream of launches broadcasting the final separation of the nose cone.

It appears as if the US government is hoping to keep quiet about the fact that Zuma may have been lost moments after the Falcon 9 rocket reached orbit.

According to Bloomberg, it is believed that a malfunction in the satellite saw the craft burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, with a number of lawmakers and government officials now briefed on its status.

However, as The Verge pointed out, there are conflicting stories being told among various sources, with some claiming that the mission failed in the upper stage of the SpaceX rocket, while others claim that the satellite did not separate from the rocket at all.

SpaceX responds

SpaceX’s response to queries was that it did everything it was asked to do, despite reports indicating that the problem was in the Falcon 9 rocket.

“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” said SpaceX’s president and COO, Gwynne Shotwell.

“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.”

To add further confusion, the US Strategic Command, which tracks objects in orbit, categorised Zuma as object USA 280, meaning that it would have had to complete at least one orbit. Other claims of seeing the Falcon 9’s upper-stage re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere at the time of the launch would seem to corroborate SpaceX’s claim.

With no one willing to talk openly about the apparent failure, a number of theories are now being put forward, including one suggesting that Northrop Grumman’s payload adapter on the SpaceX rocket could have failed.

On every SpaceX rocket, the company puts on its own adapter, which physically separates a satellite from the upper part of the rocket. However, in this instance, Northrop Grumman provided its own device, fuelling speculation of a fault, but the aerospace giant has refused to comment on the classified mission.

Given that the secrecy will likely continue for some time to come, it will now be left up to amateur astronomers in the coming weeks, months and years to help solve the puzzle of what actually happened with Zuma.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic