On January 7th, 2018, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Zuma spacecraft for an unknown branch of the military or clandestine agency. The goal was to deliver Zuma to low-Earth orbit, and at the time, it seemed that SpaceX was successful in doing so.
However, the next day, it was first reported by The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg that the highly classified government satellite was no longer, or had never been, in orbit. Unnamed government sources seemingly tried to pin the incident on SpaceX, but according to strong statements from the spaceflight company and now the military, the blame may be on the still-silent Zuma manufacturer Northrop Grumman.
During an interview with Newsweek, astrophysicist and satellite expert Jonathan McDowell said that “Zuma probably made a single orbit of the Earth and then came down again”. Questions and accusations started to arise, blaming SpaceX and Falcon 9 for not delivering Zuma as it was supposed to.
Gwynne Shotwell, the president and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, told the media that “after review of all data to date, [the] Falcon 9 did everything correctly,” and that the “information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false”. Because of the classified nature of this mission, SpaceX and Shotwell were unable to provide a further comment.
Northrop Grumman, an aerospace tech firm who had built Zuma, provided their own payload adaptor according to a report in Wired. Could this device, usually supplies by SpaceX, have caused the satellite to have never separated from the first stage of the rocket? If so, does that mean Northrop Grumman is to blame? A lot of questions still remain and still, Northrop remains silent.
While it’s still a mystery as to what exactly happened to Zuma, the United States Air Force has stated that SpaceX will keep their certification to launch for them. An Air Force rep told Bloomberg that “[the United States Air Force] remains confident in [SpaceX]’s capabilities despite the disappearance this month of [Zuma]”. Lieutenant General John Thompson, who is the commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, said in a statement that “the Air Force will continue to evaluate data from all launches” and that SpaceX “did everything correctly” for Zuma.
Until we learn exactly what happened with this top secret military satellite, we will just have to rest with the knowledge that the Falcon 9 did, in fact, perform as it was supposed to.
Image Credit: SpaceX
Cassie Johnson is a Space Reporter and Photojournalist for Star Letters. She studied Studio Art and Design at Northern Illinois University, with a degree emphasis in Photography. When she is not chasing rockets or staring at the stars, Cassie can be found perfecting her photography or with her dogs, Frankie and Chewie. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.