Expensive US Spy Satellite Presumed Lost After SpaceX Mission Goes Awry

An expensive, highly-classified U.S. spy satellite is presumed lost after it failed to reach orbit aboard a SpaceX rocket Sunday, causing it to either burn up in the atmosphere or crash into the sea.

A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Sunday evening carrying a spy satellite code-named Zuma. The secret payload built by Northrop Grumman Corp. is believed to have been destroyed, U.S. officials briefed on the mission told Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

One U.S. official said the satellite is assumed to be a “write-off.”

Given the secretive nature of the payload, only 23 minutes were broadcast live on the web, so viewers were only able to observe the launch and the first-stage recovery, according to Bloomberg.

SpaceX has not yet acknowledged any mission failure and has actually been tweeting out images of the launch. “We do not comment on missions of this nature,” SpaceX spokesman James Gleeson said in a statement, “but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.”

It is unclear exactly what happened to the satellite, as U.S. Strategic Command created a new designation — USA 280 — for a U.S. satellite after the SpaceX launch. There is some evidence to suggest that the satellite may have actually made it into space and completed at least one orbit, reports the Verge. STRATCOM did not comment on the details of the new entry into its tracking database, explaining that it had nothing to add.

Northrop Grumman is also refusing to comment on the mission. “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions,” Lon Rains, communications director for Northrop, said in a statement.

If the launch did fail, it is a major embarrassment for SpaceX at a time when the company is trying to establish itself as a reliable competitor for defense contractors like Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. SpaceX launched its first satellite for the U.S. military last summer.

The purpose of the Zuma satellite is classified and therefore unknown, but its value is estimated to be several billion dollars.


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