SpaceX's secret satellite mystery: 3 most likely answers

Elon Musk's rocket company sent a top-secret payload to space for the US government Sunday. Now it's been lost. Here's what may have happened.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
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A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches with Zuma aboard Sunday night.

Video capture by Eric Mack/CNET

The mystery surrounding the top-secret government payload that SpaceX launched aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Sunday only deepened as reports circulated Monday that the satellite had been lost

SpaceX was quick to deny responsibility for the failure.

"After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night," said President and COO Gwynne Shotwell in a statement Tuesday. "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."

Northrop Grumman, the contractor that manufactured the spacecraft and booked the launch on behalf of the US government, has said it can't comment on the classified mission code-named Zuma.

Unnamed sources told The Wall Street Journal Monday that the payload failed to reach orbit after launch and is considered a "total loss."

There has been some confusion over what exactly happened to the satellite after leaving Florida, however.

Orbit achieved? 

Amateur spotters and pilots captured what appears to be the Falcon 9 upper stage venting fuel in flight over Africa a few hours after launch. This would seem to indicate that the section of the rocket carrying the payload did achieve orbit and that things went according to a typical SpaceX launch plan.

"It shows that at least the Upper stage achieved orbit (so it was definitely not a launch failure where the rocket failed to achieve orbit), and it makes sense that the payload then did as well," writes amateur spotter Marco Langbroek on his blog.

Other images of what appears to be the Falcon 9 upper stage after achieving orbit have surfaced online. NORAD also cataloged something related to the launch in the Space-Track listing of orbital objects. US Strategic Command, however, told Bloomberg that it has nothing new to track since the Sunday launch.

It's possible that it was the Falcon 9 upper stage itself that was spotted and added to the catalog, and some signs point to the possibility that the secret spacecraft may have never even detached from the rocket, instead re-entering the atmosphere after about 1.5 orbits and burning up with it.

Separation anxiety

Wired reported last year that Northrop Grumman supplied its own custom adapter to attach its payload to the inside of the Falcon 9, and NASASpaceflight.com has noted that payload processing didn't take place at SpaceX facilities for the Zuma launch.

"Normally when you buy a rocket launch, you've paid for 'the payload adapter on the rocket final stage pops the satellite off at the end,'" wrote astronomer and veteran launch observer Jonathan McDowell on Twitter. "But on this mission the customer provided its own payload adapter, so separation may be its problem and not SpaceX's problem." 

It's also worth noting that the original Zuma launch was planned for November but was delayed for technical reasons having to do with the fairing, which is the nose cone that protects the payload during its ascent.

Three possibilities

So given what we know, it seems that the Falcon 9 did achieve orbit, presumably with the Zuma payload still attached, so the notion that the satellite just fell back to Earth is misleading at best. As Langbroek and others have pointed out, these are the three most plausible options. 1. Zuma is in orbit and alive. 2. It's in orbit and not functioning. 3. It failed to separate from the Falcon 9 and has probably burned up along with it.

Plenty of conspiracy theories were quick to pop up on social media suggesting that the failure of the satellite is a cover story of some sort to allow Zuma to orbit in secret or something. McDowell points out that this isn't really plausible for a number of reasons. 

One of those reasons is that everyone from amateurs to governments have the ability to track even clandestine satellites. So if Zuma is still up there, it's likely to be found in the next few weeks, which has happened with other secret SpaceX payloads in the past.

The scenario in which Zuma did manage to achieve orbit and separate from the Falcon 9 but isn't functional could actually provide the most dramatic ending to this sordid satellite story. Something similar happened when a US spy satellite failed shortly after attaining orbit in 2006. It was later shot down in 2008 as part of a military operation known as "Burnt Frost."

Of course, it's possible we may never know the final fate of Zuma.

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