On Sunday, Jan. 7, at about 8 p.m., a rocket lifted off at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, carrying a government satellite to a low orbit around Earth.
The Falcon 9 rocket “did everything correctly,” said Gwynne Shotwell, spokeswoman for SpaceX, the company operating the rocket.
But a day later, unnamed sources told media the mission was actually a failure and the payload was not successfully deployed.
This was no ordinary payload.
The rocket carried a satellite so secret, nobody is willing to say which government agency paid the estimated billion dollars for it. We only know its name—Zuma.
The satellite was built by Northrop Grumman, a giant aerospace and defense company and major U.S. military contractor.
The satellite’s launch was postponed by two months because of an undisclosed fairing issue, Ars Technica reported.
The launch, broadcast by SpaceX, seemed to go without a hitch. Yet, SpaceX never confirmed successful deployment of the satellite.
Ars Technica was told by unnamed sources on Monday “that Zuma never fully separated from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and that it burned up during the reentry to Earth’s atmosphere.”
Here’s how it works:
After launch, the 2-stage rocket reaches speeds of over 3,700 mph within 150 seconds. It then separates the first stage, fires up the second stage engines, and continues on toward orbit.
Once it reaches orbit, the second stage detaches from the satellite, continues for about 1.5 orbits around the Earth, then launches its engines again, pushing itself towards the Earth and crashing into the ocean.
If the Falcon 9 “did everything correctly,” then it brought Zuma to orbit. If the satellite failed to detach, why would the rocket go on with the engine burn and crash back to Earth, burning a billion dollars worth of secrets in the atmosphere?
— Loren Grush (@lorengrush) January 9, 2018
Here the plot starts to thicken.
SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk, “reportedly told some of his employees it [Zuma] was the most important thing the company had ever launched,” Ars reported.
However, Space Intel Reporter Peter Selding tells a different story. He was told, by anonymous sources, on Monday that Zuma “may be dead in orbit after separation from Falcon 9.”
Zuma satellite from @northropgrumman may be dead in orbit after separation from @SpaceX Falcon 9, sources say. Info blackout renders any conclusion – launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? — impossible to draw.
— Peter B. de Selding (@pbdes) January 12, 2018
But U.S. Strategic Command said it wasn’t tracking any new satellites in orbit, Bloomberg reported.
And to add more confusion, the Satellite Catalog marks Zuma as “in orbit,” although that may only mean the satellite completed at least one orbit.
SpaceX wouldn’t provide more information because Zuma is classified. The government wouldn’t comment because Zuma is classified. Northrop Grumman wouldn’t comment because—you guessed it—Zuma is classified.
All the secrecy and unconfirmed reports provide fertile ground for speculation. One of the popular theories is that Zuma is still in orbit, perfectly functional, but equipped with technology that renders it undetectable. After all, it was Northrop Grumman who developed the stealth technology, to begin with.
This theory has problems too though. There are plenty of enthusiasts who use telescopes to observe and track satellites. That means Zuma would have to be invisible to the naked eye, or at least masked enough to make it very hard to spot. It would also have to somehow communicate with its controllers without being detected.
Unless Congress or the President declassifies some information or somebody leaks it, the public can hardly expect a straight answer anytime soon.