Highly Classified Satellite Plummeted Into Indian Ocean After SpaceX Launch, Official Confirms

After the launch of the secretive Zuma satellite into outer space aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, reports circulated that the new eye in the sky, which is worth billions, "is presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit."


Then, as we reported this morning, in the absence of any official statement from either the government or SpaceX itself - understandable since the cargo was so "secret" nobody was willing to make any statements on the record - the mystery around the launch and the payload continued, as in an emailed statement, company President and COO Gwynne Shotwell, said that the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sunday "did everything correctly."

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.

Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.

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. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.

Which is odd as Bloomberg reported that the second-stage booster section of the Falcon 9 failed, although again there was no official statement. It didn't help that Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman which was commissioned by the Defense Department to choose the launch contractor, said “we cannot comment on classified missions.”

Further, as we discussed last night, the mystery grew due to the secretive nature of the mission, and SpaceX did not show the entire Zuma mission during its livestream. Typically for its commercial flights, the company will show the launch all the way through to the payload’s deployment into orbit. However, the Zuma webcast did not broadcast the separation of the nose cone, which surrounds the satellite during launch, nor did it show the satellite being deployed. SpaceX has censored its livestreams like this before with other classified government payloads that the company has launched. But usually SpaceX or the government agency its working with will confirm a successful mission afterward. So doubts started circulating late Sunday night when neither SpaceX nor Northrop Grumman — the manufacturer of the Zuma satellite — confirmed if the launch was successful.

Of course, Northrop Grumman wouldn’t comment on the launch. "This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions,” Lon Rains, communications director for Northrop, said in a statement to The Verge. But a payload adapter failure would explain a lot: it would mean the spacecraft and the rocket’s upper stage made it to orbit still attached, where they were picked up by Strategic Command’s tracking. Then the two somehow de-orbited, on accident or maybe even on purpose — it’s possible SpaceX used the rocket to send the pair careening toward Earth, since Zuma was not designed to live in orbit with a rocket strapped to its back.

Meanwhile, Army Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis, the Pentagon spokesman for space policy, referred questions to SpaceX.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, carrying the Zuma satellite into orbit

In short: i) nobody wants to talk and ii) nobody wants to take the blame. The confusion prompted The Verge to actually post "Did SpaceX’s secret Zuma mission actually fail?"

We now have the answer to at least one of the questions, because as ABC reports, a US official confirmed that the highly classified satellite launched by SpaceX this weekend ended up plummeting into the Indian Ocean.

Here is what we now know:

Following its launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Sunday night, the satellite failed to remain in orbit, the official said.

Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor that manufactured the payload -- reportedly a billion-dollar spy satellite -- told ABC News its mission is classified and declined to comment on the loss of the satellite.

But SpaceX suggested that it was not at fault, telling ABC News its rocket, named Falcon 9, "did everything correctly."

And yet, the confusion remains: as noted above, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell denied the company was at fault: "The data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational, or other changes are needed." Furthermore, the Zuma indent won't impact the schedule of SpaceX's upcoming launches, including the maiden flight of Falcon Heavy, the company said.

So what really happened? As the Verge notes, until someone speaks on the record, it’s hard to know for sure. Meanwhile, SpaceX is pretty pleased with the launch. The company has been tweeting pictures from the mission, indicating that all went well. Plus, SpaceX rolled out its new Falcon Heavy rocket to its primary launchpad for an upcoming test, which probably wouldn’t have happened if there was a major issue with the company’s rocket hardware. “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,” Shotwell added in her statement. “Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight.”

But since Zuma is a classified mission, it seems doubtful we’ll get a straight answer. It’s possible that there’s a dead government satellite in orbit right now, but it seems likely it succumbed to Earth’s atmosphere over the weekend.