Where is Zuma?

Where is Zuma?

Multiple news outlets are reporting that the Zuma satellite launched by SpaceX last night has failed.  The mission is highly classified and reporters are quoting anonymous sources, making it difficult to determine what may have happened.

Rumors began swirling on Twitter this afternoon with veteran space reporters Peter de Selding (@pbdes) and Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) tweeting that something seemed amiss, quickly followed by others including NASASpaceflight.com (@NASASpaceflight).  This evening the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and Reuters published stories citing unnamed sources.

All that was publicly known about Zuma before launch was that it was built by Northrop Grumman for the government.  Which government agency ordered it and its purpose are classified.   It was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 last night at 8:00 pm ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after a series of delays.

SpaceX televised the launch and the landing of the Falcon 9 first stage, but because of the classified nature of the launch, it did not televise the flight of the second stage as it usually does.  Ordinarily, the second stage would boost the satellite into orbit, the two would separate at the appropriate altitude, and the second stage would deorbit itself while the satellite continued with its mission.

Andy Pasztor at the WSJ cites “industry and government officials” as saying that members of Congress were briefed on the failure and it did not separate from the second stage.  Reuters goes further, citing two anonymous officials as saying the satellite is “assumed to have broken up or plunged into the sea.”

However, Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report, which provides detailed information on space launches, tweeted that Zuma was assigned a Space-Track catalog number by NORAD (USA 280), suggesting that it completed at least one orbit.  He added that does not mean it is still there. The second stage was designed to reenter after 1.5 orbits and would have done so even if the satellite was still attached.

What happened is important not only from the standpoint of the loss of what the WSJ reports was a multibillion satellite, but whether the Falcon 9 rocket performed correctly.  For its part, SpaceX said in a statement that “We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

The situation is evolving.   Any clarity will have to wait for official sources to publicly reveal Zuma’s fate.

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