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January 9, 2018

Did SpaceX lose the classified Zuma payload during its latest launch?

by John_A

SpaceX on Sunday launched a a rocket carrying a classified satellite codenamed Zuma, built by Northrop Grumman for the U.S. government.

While the initial stages of the mission seemed to go plan, it now appears there may have been a serious problem with the deployment of the satellite, with some reports suggesting it fell back to Earth after failing to separate from the spent upper stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The first stage landed intact, as planned.

Mystery has always surrounded the mission, with no information ever offered about the role of the Zuma satellite, though it’s been suggested it contained powerful surveillance technology.

SpaceX’s failure to confirm the mission as a success on Sunday left many wondering if everything had gone to plan, and on Monday the Wall Street Journal reported industry and government officials as saying that House and Senate lawmakers have been informed about the “botched mission.”

If SpaceX did lose Zuma — a satellite estimated to be worth more than $1 billion — it’d be a serious blow for the private space company. Headed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, SpaceX had been getting back on track with a string of successful launches and an increasingly busy mission schedule following a disaster in September, 2016, when one of its rockets exploded on a Cape Canaveral launchpad during pre-mission preparations. Social networking giant Facebook lost its Amos-6 satellite in the explosion, which was set to play a role in the company’s internet-serving venture. SpaceX grounded its operations for several months while it worked out what went wrong, before resuming launches at the start of 2017.

Another disaster would tarnish its reputation as a reliable deliverer of satellites to orbit, and may prompt future clients to look to competing companies to take their equipment into space.

In response to inquiries about Sunday’s mission, SpaceX would only say: “We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally,” while Northrop Grumman said, “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”

If either company offers up any further information about what happened on Sunday evening, we’ll be sure to update.

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