What Happened to Zuma Satellite After SpaceX Launch?

TechCrunch that SpaceX's latest rocket had a successful launch but the payload being carried by the rocket, codenamed "Zuma" and believed to be a spy satellite for the US government, was unable to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

However, it appears that Zuma did not make it into orbit.

"Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule", she said.

"Three, two, one, ignition and liftoff", said a SpaceX commentator as the Falcon 9 rocket launched under cover of darkness from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 8:00 pm (0100 GMT Monday).

As critics were quick to call SpaceX's reliability into question, the company rolled its new powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy, onto the same launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center that hoisted the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Last year, the company launched 18 times successfully, a record for SpaceX. However, SpaceX made a decision to delay the launch to deal with some issues regarding the payload fairing (nose cone).

Shotwell's statement emailed to reporters was an unusual one for SpaceX, which rarely comments on planned Falcon 9 flights before the week of launch. A spokesperson for the huge defense contractor declined to comment on Zuma after Sunday night's launch.


As SpaceX looks to increase its share of defense business, those customers are very much interested in reliability, said Carissa Christensen, chief executive of consulting firm Bryce Space and Technology.

"This is a classified program", Northrop Grumman Communications Director Lon Rains told HuffPost in an emailed statement. Its classified mission was intentionally inscrutable - whether to detect missile launches, spy on adversaries, or to track ship at sea with a space radar. A spokesperson for National Reconnaissance Office, which owns the USA government's spy satellite fleet, said Zuma did not belong to that organization. It was so shrouded in secrecy that the sponsoring government agency was not even identified, as is usually the case.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who previous flew into space in the 1980s aboard Columbia as a payload specialist, sided with SpaceX, stating, "The first statement by SpaceX was that the failure to achieve orbit was not theirs".

Falcon Heavy is created to take heavier payloads to higher orbits, opening SpaceX's manifest to new capabilities.

But with the mission's classified nature, confirmation of Zuma's fate, and what may have gone wrong, remained elusive.

  • David Armstrong