SpaceX is denying rumours its rocket lost a secret US government satellite

SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)A Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX leaves behind an exhaust plume as it races toward space with a top-secret government payload code-named Zuma.
  • Zuma, a top-secret government payload launched by SpaceX, reportedly crashed to Earth on Sunday night.
  • SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, says its rocket performed correctly.
  • The reported failure may trace back to an adaptor built by Northrop Grumman that connected the satellite to the rocket.
  • SpaceX typically supplies such an adaptor but reportedly did not for this mission.

A top-secret government mission launched by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by tech mogul Elon Musk, may have failed on Sunday night.

Zuma, the code-name of the clandestine payload – likely a next-generation spy or communications satellite – most likely broke apart and crashed into the ocean, according to the Wall Street Journal, NBC, and other outlets. This may be because the satellite failed to separate or disconnect from the rocket once it reached orbit around Earth.

However, SpaceX seems to be distancing itself from the alleged failure.

“[A]fter review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. If we or others find otherwise based on further review, we will report it immediately,” Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, said in a statement to Business Insider.

Shotwell added: “Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule.”

Zuma may have cost billions of US taxpayer dollars to design, build, and certify, according to the Wall Street Journal. A standard Falcon 9 rocket launch costs about $US62 million, and this was SpaceX’s third national-security launch.

What brought Zuma’s reported doom?

Falcon 9 spacexSpaceX/FlickrThe fairing of a Falcon 9 rocket.

The secretive nature of the Zuma payload makes reliable details about the mission difficult to come by or verify.

However, the key part connecting the Zuma payload to the rocket wasn’t made by SpaceX.

“Normally when you buy a rocket launch, you’ve paid for ‘the payload adaptor on the rocket final stage pops the satellite off at the end’. But on this mission the customer provided its own payload adaptor, so separation may be its problem and not SpaceX’s problem,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tweeted on Monday night.

“It matters for future SpaceX customers who would want to know if SpaceX’s payload adapters were unreliable,” he replied in a follow-up tweet.

Northrop Grumman, the company that built the Zuma payload, told Business Insider in November that the US government tasked it with picking a launch company, and it chose SpaceX.

But on Tuesday, Northrop Grumman spokesperson Lon Rains declined to answer questions about the mission, including the failure or success of its launch, cost, exact government customer, and more.

“This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on a classified mission,” he said.

Below is Shotwell’s full statement about Zuma’s reported failure:

“For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night. 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.

“Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule. Falcon Heavy has been rolled out to launchpad LC-39A for a static fire later this week, to be followed shortly thereafter by its maiden flight. We are also preparing for an F9 launch for SES and the Luxembourg Government from SLC-40 in three weeks.”

In short, SpaceX appears to be shrugging its shoulders as it prepares to launch yet another Falcon 9 rocket and its first Mars-capable rocket, Falcon Heavy (a launch vehicle that’s essentially three times as powerful as a Falcon 9).

We’ll update this story as new details emerge about the Zuma mission and its alleged failure.

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