What Happened With SpaceX's Top-Secret Government Mission?

A few days after a secretive launch, rumors are circulating that the mysterious payload has failed.

Joe Skipper / Reuters

The long-awaited maiden flight of SpaceX’s heavy-lift rocket is almost here. Elon Musk’s company has spent the last few weeks prepping the Falcon Heavy at Cape Canaveral in Florida, teasing photos of the rocket standing tall on the launchpad, the culmination of years of planning and anticipation.

So why are people still talking about a SpaceX launch from two days ago?

On Sunday night, SpaceX launched a top-secret U.S. government satellite into low-Earth orbit, known by the code name Zuma, from the same site in Florida. The company live-streamed the event, but cut the feed early to preserve the secret nature of the mission. The first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket successfully returned to Earth. Northrop Grumman, the defense company that manufactured the satellite, stayed silent, which isn’t surprising, since the mission is classified. SpaceX shared some photos of the launch on social media, which led people to assume it had been a success.

But then, on Monday night, reports started circulating that something had gone wrong. Peter B. de Selding, an editor at SpaceIntelReport.com, citing sources, tweeted the Zuma satellite “may be dead in orbit after separation” from the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that lofted it deeper into orbit. Stories from Ars Technica, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg have since reported similar information, all citing unnamed sources. The Journal and Bloomberg report Zuma is believed to have fallen back into the atmosphere after failing to separate from the second-stage.

SpaceX said Monday that everything went well on their end. “We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally,” a spokesperson said in a statement to The Atlantic and others. Northrop Grumman said only that “we cannot comment on classified missions.”

It’s important to note that so far, all news reports attribute information about a loss to anonymous sources. Without an official explanation from Northrop Grumman, the fate of the satellite will remain unknown. But the reporting, combined with thin, initial statements from both SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, did little to quell speculation.

Perhaps that’s why SpaceX released a longer statement Tuesday morning, attributed to Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and COO. “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,” Shotwell said. “Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.”

It could very well be that the Falcon 9 behaved perfectly, but the payload still failed to separate from the rocket’s upper stage. According to Robin Seemangal at Wired, Northrop Grumman provided the adapter that attached Zuma to the Falcon 9. A problem with that technology would fall on Northrop Grumman, not SpaceX.

A spokesperson Northrop Grumman declined to provide an updated comment on Tuesday.

Very little is known about the Zuma satellite. Northrop Grumman has said the U.S. government hired it to launch the payload, but it’s not known which agency is responsible for its operations.

Zuma marked the third launch of nationals-security payloads for SpaceX. The company launched a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office last May and the Air Force’s secretive X-37B space plane in September.

Shotwell said the Zuma launch will not affect SpaceX’s launch schedule in the coming weeks. Even as parts of the community remain distracted by the fate of the Zuma satellite, SpaceX appears to be moving full steam ahead with preparations for the Falcon Heavy. The rocket has been rolled out to the launchpad for a test-fire of its engines on Wednesday, a crucial milestone before launch. If that goes well, SpaceX will set a target date for the maiden launch. Unlike the Zuma launch, the public will be able to follow the trajectory of the Heavy—whether it coasts seamlessly into orbit or goes up in flames.