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A Spy Satellite Worth Billions of Dollars Was Reportedly Lost During a Botched SpaceX Mission. What Exactly Happened Remains Unclear.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a previous launch in California.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket during a previous launch in California.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

SpaceX launched a rocket in Florida on Sunday carrying a secret military satellite dubbed “Zuma,” which was likely worth billions of dollars. The mission has been largely shrouded in secrecy—everything from the purpose of the payload to the identity of the government department that commissioned it is classified. And now, in the days after the launch, the public has been kept in the dark about what happened to the satellite. All we really know is that something went wrong.

Various news outlets are reporting that the satellite, built by Northrop Grumman and reportedly belonging to the United States, is now lost because it did not detach as planned from the Falcon 9 rocket and thus failed to reach orbit.

However, because the mission was classified, accounts of the bungled mission have conflicted about what exactly occurred. Even the livestream of the launch offers few answers, because SpaceX cut the broadcast before the satellite’s separation from the rocket to maintain a level of confidentiality.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting, based on interviews with industry and government sources, that the satellite was dragged back down into atmosphere when it didn’t separate properly from the upper part of the rocket, either due to problems with the timing of the release or damage to the payload. Members of Congress and staffers were then briefed on the situation. The report, however, acknowledges the murky nature of the events and contains a caveat: “The lack of details about what occurred means that some possible alternate sequence of events other than a failed separation may have been the culprit.”

Indeed, spokespersons for the companies involved offered the Journal very little by way of on-the-record information. Northrop Grumman did not provide a comment due to the “classified” nature of the launch, and a spokesman from SpaceX told the Journal, “We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

Bloomberg cited a U.S. official and two congressional aides in its account of what went wrong, which is roughly the same as the Journal’s.
One of the aides told the reporters that the satellite was lost, while another claimed that it crashed into the sea.

Yet, SpaceX’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell gave Bloomberg an even stronger statement concerning the success of the operation, which reads, “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.” She added that “no design, operational or other changes are needed.”

The Verge also received strong words from Shotwell: “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.”

So if SpaceX is truthfully claiming that they didn’t mess up, but the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg are hearing from sources that the satellite isn’t in orbit, then what happened? The Verge notes that Northrop Grumman may be at fault, since it provided its own payload adapter, which detaches the satellite from the rocket. Or perhaps the satellite itself is faulty. Or maybe SpaceX hasn’t uncovered an issue on its end yet. Nothing is for certain until both companies offer more details on what happened.

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