On January 8th, SpaceX launched the year’s first orbital mission, to put USA-280, a classified US government satellite code names “Zuma”, in orbit. While the launch had appeared to have been a success at start, the joy was short-lived as reports soon indicated deployment failure. Meanwhile, SpaceX safely landed on its reusable boosters for the twenty-first time.
The satellite originally scheduled to launch in November was commissioned by its manufacturer Northrop Grumman. SpaceX delayed the launch twice while studying data collected in a test for a different customer. Unusually, neither of SpaceX’s previous governmental customers, the Air Force or the NRO, announced or claimed the satellite to their name.
SpaceX publicly live streamed camera feed of its first stage, as it usually does, and showed successful separation of the upper stage with the payload and eventually safely landed at Landing Zone 1.
However, on Monday Dow Jones cited unnamed officials to have said lawmakers being debriefed on the loss of the payload. In response to the queries by Ars Technica, SpaceX spokesperson responded, “the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally,” while Northrop Grumman tersely denied any information: “we cannot comment on classified missions.”
The payload is speculated to have failed to release from the upper stage and burned along with it during re-entry into the atmosphere.
Government investigation is expected with results reported to classified congress committee meetings. SpaceX, for its part, is continuing with its schedule including a demonstration flight of its upcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, claiming “no design, operational or other changes are needed” in a statement on Tuesday morning. Northrop Grumman did not make additional follow-up statements.