Conflicting reports are surfacing after SpaceX's seemingly successful launch of a Falcon 9 rocket with a secret government payload, code-named Zuma. The Falcon 9 rocket carrying Zuma blasted off and appeared to shed "stage one", as planned.
This was SpaceX' s third classified mission for the USA government, a lucrative customer. However, SpaceX censored critical portions of the launch, including the separation of the nose cone surrounding the top-secret Zuma satellite, and the satellite's actual deployment into earth's orbit.
SpaceX denied providing any comment related to the mission as it contained confidential information.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the satellite failed to separate properly during the second stage of the mission and dived back into the Earth's atmosphere which caused the failure of the designated mission.
A spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the satellite, said Monday: "This is a classified mission". However, the agency confirmed that the Falcon 9 performed as it was supposed to after going through the data review of the mission. That would have been about 1 1/2 orbits and normal for a second stage.
The Falcon's first stage completed its job, lifting the rocket off the pad and toward space, then separated and landed back at Cape Canaveral.
Adding to the mystery, the satellite, categorized as United States of America 280, was still listed as a payload on orbit by the US space surveillance system as of Tuesday afternoon, said Laura Grego, a Caltech-trained physicist who is a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. SpaceX was originally set to launch the Zuma mission in November, but the company tweeted at the time that it was postponing the mission "to take a closer look at data from recent fairing testing for another customer".
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Northrup Grumman, the maker of the payload, said it was for the USA government and would be delivered to low-Earth orbit, but offered no other details. No further requests for communication were entertained by the company regarding the mission.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp, led by entrepreneur Elon Musk, launched its first satellite for the USA military with its Falcon 9 rocket in May of a year ago.
"The most important issue here is whether the Pentagon will rethink its reliability as a provider of launch services", said Thompson, whose think tank receives funding from Boeing and Lockheed.
"I think the rocket itself is considered an extremely reliable vehicle", he said. The company chose SpaceX as the launch provider, noting late a year ago that it took "great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma".
She continued: "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".
The rocket is the largest in the world right now, made up of three boosters and 27 engines.