Published: Thu, January 11, 2018
Sci-tech | By Bennie Mills

SpaceX dealt blow as secret military satellite goes missing

SpaceX dealt blow as secret military satellite goes missing

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.

In response to a query on Monday afternoon, a SpaceX spokesperson told Ars, "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally".

Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp, which was commissioned by the Defense Department to choose the launch contractor, declined to comment on the payload adapter, saying "we can not comment on classified missions".

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The U.S. government commissioned SpaceX for the classified Zuma mission, but its details have been kept under wraps since a year ago. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.

So if there was a problem, who's at fault? SpaceX's review so far indicates that "no design, operational or other changes are needed", she said. Earlier in the day, SpaceX founder Elon Musk shared photos of the nighttime launch on Twitter. The payload of the launch is assumed to be a national security satellite or spacecraft, though whatever it really is, we may now never find out. 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. Wired reported in November, when the launch was originally scheduled, that Northrop Grumman itself provided the "adapter to mate with SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket". This may be because the satellite failed to separate or disconnect from the rocket once it reached orbit around Earth. The Zuma mission was a success on at least one count: SpaceX successfully landed the rocket's first stage for reuse in a future launch, a key step in its goal to drive down the cost of access to space.

This was SpaceX's third classified mission for the USA government, AP reported.

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In a statement, the Department of Defense said, "As a matter of policy we do not comment on classified missions". Upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, most rockets burn up, while Falcon 9 was built with a heat shield able to withstand the melting of its metallic exterior.

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

This is a classified mission, so we're obviously working with limited information. When SpaceX has had mishaps in the past, it's grounded the company for months. The Falcon Heavy is perhaps the most important rocket ever created by SpaceX, as it is the one planned to be used for missions to the moon and Mars. SpaceX, along with Boeing Co., also has a contract with Nasa to fly astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the "Commercial Crew" program, with the first crucial test flight slated for the second quarter. The company later said it had cleared the issue.

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While the Falcon 9 had the Zuma satellite, the Falcon heavy will have an interesting payload of its own: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's personal Tesla Roadster. After a rigorous Air Force review, SpaceX was certified in 2015 to compete for military launches.

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