SpaceX launched a classified, multibillion-dollar spy satellite for the U.S. government on Sunday ― and then something went wrong.
Unnamed government officials told Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal that the satellite, built by Northrop Grumman under the code-name “Zuma,” failed to reach orbit and crashed back into the atmosphere.
Due to the highly classified nature of the payload, however, it’s unclear what exactly happened. (We don’t even know which government agency commissioned Zuma in the first place, which is rare.)
SpaceX declined to comment on the particulars, but in a statement to HuffPost was adamant there was no failure on its end. As evidence, here’s the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage returning safely back to Earth, as planned, just under eight minutes after launch:
“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement emailed to HuffPost.
“If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately,” Shotwell added. “Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.”
SpaceX noted it has a number of launches and tests scheduled for the next several weeks, which it would have immediately postponed had something gone wrong Sunday.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, notes the rocket seems to have launched something, and that it completed at least one orbit:
While conspiracy-minded individuals have been quick to note a spy satellite suddenly disappearing seems perfectly in line with what a spy satellite might be designed to do, McDowell says that’s unlikely.
If Zuma did indeed fail, it’s possible the payload adapter Northrop Grumman built to deploy the satellite from the rocket itself malfunctioned. According to documents obtained by Wired, the company built its own payload adapter instead of using hardware provided by SpaceX.
That would explain SpaceX’s account of a perfect launch, while also squaring with accounts the satellite is a total loss.
Northrop Grumman declined to comment, instead releasing a tight-lipped statement.
“This is a classified program,” Northrop Grumman Communications Director Lon Rains told HuffPost in an emailed statement. “We cannot discuss classified programs.”