What Went Wrong With the Launch of the Secretive Zuma Satellite?

Not all is well for the classified Zuma satellite launched from Florida on Sunday


A secretive Zuma satellite launch on behalf of an unknown U.S. government agency recently went awry. Amidst speculation, one thing is certain: the satellite isn’t fully functional in its intended orbit.

Late on Sunday night, SpaceX launched a satellite manufactured by Northrop Grumman out of Florida. Few details about the satellite are officially known besides its codename “Zuma,” not even which government agency intended to use the satellite nor for what purpose. The satellite was destined for low-Earth orbit, Robin Seemangal wrote for Wired late last year, and unlike most launches, the satellite manufacturer Northrop Grumman, not SpaceX, supplied the payload adapter used to secure the satellite during launch and release it into orbit.

As it usually does for classified launches, Loren Grush reports for The Verge, SpaceX censored coverage of the launch, cutting its livestream prior to nose cone separation that would reveal the payload. It did stream the successful landing of the Falcon 9 first stage rocket booster after it completed its primary mission.

But something went wrong after the stream cut. Anthony Capaccio and Dana Hull reporting for Bloomberg cite a US official and two congressional aides reporting the launch failed, with one aide stating that the satellite and second-stage rocket fell back into the ocean. Andy Pasztor reporting for The Wall Street Journal, concurs the satellite was lost, writing that US lawmakers were briefed after the satellite burned up in the atmosphere.

The secretive nature of the launch makes it difficult to discern additional details. SpaceX officials told Grush and others that the rocket launch was “nominal,” an industry term meaning the rocket performed as expected. Northrop Grumman declined comment, citing inability to comment on classified missions. And despite Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center adding a new entry for the satellite on its Space-Track.org catalog that tracks all objects in orbit, they, too, are declining detailed comment that could clarify what happened. This new entry could be in error, but is more commonly an indication that Zuma made at least one orbit, Grush writes.

Without any more details, the question is open: Did Northrop Grumman’s satellite fail, or did SpaceX’s rocket not perform its duties? The consequences of failure are different for each company, Ben Popken, David Freeman and Denise Chow write for NBC News, and will likely to be debated for quite some time.

But Strategic Command aren’t the only ones who use radar and telescopes to track objects in orbit. The sky is transparent, making it impossible to ever truly hide even highly secretive spy satellites from curious eyes. With no further comment likely to come from anyone with official knowledge, amature spy satellite trackers are primed to hunt for the satellite in orbit. If they find it, the discovery could suggest a satellite error rendering Zuma dead on arrival instead of a launch error, which would have sent it crashing into the ocean.

Dutch pilot Peter Horstink captured an image that appears to show the Falcon 9 upper stage rocket venting fuel after reentry, a normal procedure that backs up SpaceX’s claims that its rockets performed as expected, Tariq Malik reports for Space.com. If the satellite is in orbit, sunlight conditions of its expected trajectory will render it impossible to observe for at least a few weeks, Grush reports. If Zuma is observed in orbit or not, the true story of what happened during the launch will likely remain shrouded in mystery for years.

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