Rumors are swirling that a secret government satellite crashed after SpaceX launched it, but the company says its rocket 'did everything correctly'

  • Zuma, a top-secret government payload, reportedly crashed to Earth after its launch by SpaceX on Sunday night.
  • But SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, says its rocket performed correctly.
  • The reported failure may trace back to an adapter that connected the satellite to the rocket.
  • SpaceX typically supplies such an adapter, but Northrop Grumman, which built the secret satellite, reportedly supplied it.


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 any role in the alleged failure.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on a supply mission to the International Space Station from historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 19, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Brown
SOLVANG, CA - DECEMBER 22: The contrail from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early evening sky on December 22, 2017, as viewed from Solvang, California. The spectacular event, seen by millions of people throughout parts of Arizona and Central and Southern California, was the result of setting sun light hitting the contrail left behind as ten communication satellites were placed into orbit by the private space company. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
SOLVANG, CA - DECEMBER 22: The contrail from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early evening sky on December 22, 2017, as viewed from Solvang, California. The spectacular event, seen by millions of people throughout parts of Arizona and Central and Southern California, was the result of setting sun light hitting the contrail left behind as ten communication satellites were placed into orbit by the private space company. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
SOLVANG, CA - DECEMBER 22: The contrail from a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched at Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the early evening sky on December 22, 2017, as viewed from Solvang, California. The spectacular event, seen by millions of people throughout parts of Arizona and Central and Southern California, was the result of setting sun light hitting the contrail left behind as ten communication satellites were placed into orbit by the private space company. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)
Billionaire entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX Elon Musk speaks in below a computer generated illustration of his new rocket at the 68th International Astronautical Congress 2017 in Adelaide on September 29, 2017. Musk said his company SpaceX has begun serious work on the BFR Rocket as he plans an Interplanetary Transport System. / AFP PHOTO / PETER PARKS (Photo credit should read PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket prepares to launch from the Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California on December 22, 2017. SpaceX blasted off a re-used Falcon 9 rocket carrying 10 satellites into orbit, its fourth launch toward a $3 billion upgrade to Virginia-based Iridium's mobile, voice and data network. / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (in lower center, in a horizontal position), is readied for launch on a supply mission to the International Space Station on historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 17, 2017. Launch is scheduled for February 18. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, in a horizontal position, is readied for launch on a supply mission to the International Space Station on historic launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., February 17, 2017. The launch is scheduled for February 18. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Ellon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX sits in a pod displayed in a booth during the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Monica Almeida
Team members from WARR Hyderloop, Technical University of Munich place their pod on the track during the SpaceX Hyperloop Pod Competition in Hawthorne, Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 29, 2017. REUTERS/Monica Almeida
The recovered first stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is transported to the SpaceX hangar at launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 14, 2016. The vehicle was launched on May 6 and returned to land a short time later aboard a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Recovered first stages of three SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket are shown during a photo opportunity in the SpaceX hangar at launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 14, 2016. The stages are in the process of refurbishing for launching again. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule approaches the International Space Station prior to installation in this NASA picture taken April 10, 2016. REUTERS/NASA via social media/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk speaks after unveiling the Dragon V2 spacecraft in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. Space Exploration Technologies announced April 27, 2016, it will send uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018, a first step in company founder Elon Musk's goal to fly people to another planet. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo
The first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket returns to land in a time exposure at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, on the launcher's first mission since a June failure, in Cape Canaveral, Florida, December 21, 2015. The rocket carried a payload of eleven satellites owned by Orbcomm, a New Jersey-based communications company. REUTERS/Joe Skipper TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon lands after lifting off from launch pad 40 during a Pad Abort Test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette
The unmanned SpaceX Crew Dragon lifts off from launch pad 40 during a Pad Abort Test at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida May 6, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket, launched by SpaceX and carrying NOAA's Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite, lifts off from launch pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida February 11, 2015. The rocket blasted off on Wednesday to put the U.S. satellite into deep space, where it will keep tabs on solar storms and image Earth from nearly 1 million miles (1.6 million km) away. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT ENVIRONMENT)
The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX on a cargo resupply service mission to the International Space Station lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida, January 10, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)
SpaceX workers examine the unmanned Falcon 9 rocket carrying NOAA's (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Deep Space Climate Observatory Satellite as it lays horizontally on launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida February 9, 2015. Launch of the SpaceX rocket with a U.S. weather satellite bound for deep space was called off minutes before liftoff on Sunday due to a technical problem, officials said. Launch had been targeted for 6:10 p.m. EST (2310 GMT) from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But about 2.5 minutes before liftoff, a problem cropped up with an Air Force radar system needed to track the rocket in flight. REUTERS/Scott Audette (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT)
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk poses by the Dragon V2 spacecraft after it was unveiled in Hawthorne, California May 29, 2014. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, on Thursday unveiled an upgraded passenger version of the Dragon cargo ship NASA buys for resupply runs to the International Space Station. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS TRANSPORT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY SOCIETY)
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is seen at the launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in this NASA handout picture released January 9, 2015. SpaceX plans to launch the rocket on Saturday, then attempt to land the discarded booster on a platform in the ocean, according to officials. REUTERS/NASA/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES)
A SpaceX upgraded Falcon 9 rocket undergoes launch preparations at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California September 27, 2013. Privately owned Space Exploration Technologies plans to test an upgraded Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday from a site in California as part of its push into the satellite launch market. Perched on top of the 22-story, beefed-up Falcon 9 will be Canada?s Cassiope science satellite. Liftoff is targeted for 9 a.m. PDT (1600 GMT). ?This is essentially a development flight for the rocket,? company founder and chief executive Elon Musk told Reuters. REUTERS/Gene Blevins (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS)
The SpaceX Dragon capsule is captured by the crew of the International Space Station using its robotic arm in this screen capture from NASA handout video released March 3, 2013. The ISS successfully captured the capsule at 0531 EST approximately 253 statute miles over the northern Ukraine. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (OUTER SPACE - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TRANSPORT) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (L), and SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk view the historic Dragon capsule that returned to Earth on May 31 following the first successful mission by a private company to carry supplies to the International Space Station at the SpaceX facility in McGregor, Texas, June 13, 2012. Bolden and Musk also thanked the more than 150 SpaceX employees working at the McGregor facility for their role in the historic mission. REUTERS/Bill Ingalls/NASA (UNITED STATES - Tags: SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
This photo provided by NASA shows a "fisheye" view of the inside of the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft and was photographed by an Expedition 31 crew member aboard the International Space Station on May 26, 2012. Dragon became the first commercially developed space vehicle to be launched to the station to join Russian, European and Japanese resupply craft that service the complex while restoring a U.S. capability to deliver cargo to the orbital laboratory. REUTERS/NASA/Handout (SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
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"[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 $62 million, and this was SpaceX's third national-security launch.

The Zuma mission was supposed to launch in mid-November, but SpaceX delayed it after examining data from a Falcon 9 fairing, or protective nosecone of the rocket, gathered during the test of a different customer's rocket.

What brought Zuma's reported doom?

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

However, the key part connecting the Zuma payload to the rocket, and which pops off a satellite once it's reached the correct altitude, wasn't made by SpaceX.

"[T]he payload adapter, which connected the Zuma payload and its fairing to the rest of the rocket, was supplied by Northrop Grumman," Eric Berger, Ars Technica's senior space editor, wrote on Tuesday. "If there was some kind of separation problem, the fault may not lie with SpaceX, but rather Northrop Grumman."

That detail is significant, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said on Monday night.

"It matters for future SpaceX customers who would want to know if SpaceX's payload adapters were unreliable," McDowell tweeted.

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

Berger reports that an investigation is underway in the Zuma mission, with both companies blaming one another for the alleged failure, and that a redacted report will ultimately be made public.

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