SpaceX Launches Zuma But Satellite Fate Unknown; Falcon Heavy Rolled Out for Static Fire

Falcon 9 first stage launches Zuma spacecraft (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

SpaceX launched a secret U.S. military satellite code named Zuma into space on Sunday evening. The company successfully landed the first stage of the Falcon 9 back at Cape Canaveral.

However, exactly what happened to the mysterious satellite remains a mystery nearly 24 hours after the launch. SpaceX says an analysis of data indicate the Falcon 9’s second stage performed nominally.

However, there are unconfirmed rumors that the satellite was lost. Rumors include the spacecraft being dead on orbit after separation from Falcon 9’s second stage, or re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere still attached to the stage.

Northrop Grumman, which built the spacecraft, is not commenting on the flight. The identity of the government agency the spacecraft was built for is not known. So, nobody from the government has confirmed whether the launch succeeded or not.

Meanwhile, SpaceX rolled out the first Falcon Heavy booster to Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center today. The company plans to conduct a brief static test of the rocket’s 27 first-stage engines for the first time. The rocket is set to make its maiden flight later this month from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Found this on reddit … link. Dutch pilot photographs 2nd stage of Falcon venting fuel over Africa on time on projected schedule. This sighting correlates with a predicted mission profile by Canadian satellite tracker Ted Molczan, with the exception that there appears to have not been a sighting of the stage and spacecraft as two identifiable dots.

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s the question I have. OK, you’ve got these photos showing the stage venting for deeorbit. But, do we know if the satellite separated as planned? There’s a Dow Jones report saying the satellite burned up after failing to separate correctly from the stage.

    There was also a strange delay on the launch webcast in announcing fairing separation. And the launched delayed from December due to a fairing issue. All that could be completely unrelated to what happened.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    We’re both asking the same questions, and I noted just what you did when watching the launch. I just thought that the photo of the fuel dump over Africa matching Ted Molczan’s educated guess at the mission profile were telling. I guess those of us in the wonk community but not in the know …. the most telling thing we’ll have is if Space X gets more government payload contracts, if insurance rates for Falcon rides get more expensive, and of course if there’s a stand down like there was for the payload faring problem.

  • Michael Halpern

    Remember even though they didn’t stream and release the footage, they still recorded it and know what happened

  • Michael Halpern

    From the sounds of it, f9 operated nominally

  • Andrew Tubbiolo
  • So, the loss of the customer’s payload is considered “nominal”?

  • Robert G. Oler


  • Robert G. Oler

    if it was a payload sep problem…well that is the biggest goof since the Angry Alligator 🙂

  • Michael Halpern

    No but the rocket is not likely at fault

  • Aerospike

    I’ve read somewhere that the payload adapter was provided by Northop Grumman for Zuma, so a separation failure would not be SpaceX’s fault.

    Anyway as far as I know, Zuma was never referred to as a “satellite”, only as a “payload”. Maybe separation was never planned in the first place..

  • Robert G. Oler

    interesting thought

  • SamuelRoman13

    t would fly at much lower launch price. With full reusability on all
    three booster cores, GTO payload will be 8,000 kg (18,000 lb). If only
    the two outside cores fly as reusable cores while the center core is
    expendable, GTO payload would be approximately 16,000 kg (35,000 lb)
    Wow, 140,000lbs to LEO for FH. But full reuse really cuts the payload to GTO. Wonder what direct injection is to GSO. Full expendable F9 is close for GTO.

  • Michael Halpern

    Sx did not provide the payload adapter, if it failed to separate it was likely something beyond the scope of their responsibility,

  • windbourne

    if customer’s payload fails, that is not SX’s issue.

  • duheagle

    I doubt that. The only way to get that footage would be to downlink it. Even encrypting the downlink wouldn’t guarantee any hostile power that intercepted the transmission couldn’t decrypt it. The only way to keep Zuma completely secret was not to have a forward-facing camera on the F9 S2 in the first place.

  • Michael Halpern

    Except any hostile power would be tracking it the best they could anyways

  • duheagle

    I don’t think the delay in announcing fairing separation was “strange.” On civilian missions, there is a forward-facing camera on the top of the S2 that images the fairing separation and the payload deployment. The feed from the camera is part of the webcast. On secret missions, there is no such camera. So the webcast hosts don’t have any live means of confirming fairing sep and have to wait to get the word on that from someone at a mission control console.

  • duheagle

    True. But they’d have no way to get an up-close-and-personal look at the payload in the way we’ve seen comsats and other civilian payloads on F9 missions if there was no down-linked camera feed to provide it.