Did Something Happen to Secret Zuma Spacecraft After SpaceX Launch?

The U.S. government's hush-hush Zuma satellite may have run into some serious problems during or shortly after its Sunday (Jan. 7) launch, according to media reports.

Zuma lifted off atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Sunday evening — a launch that also featured a successful landing back on Earth by the booster's first stage.

Everything seemed OK at the time. But on Monday (Jan. 8), rumors began percolating within the spaceflight community that something had happened to Zuma, Ars Technica reported.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the secret Zuma spacecraft for the U.S. government launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Jan. 7, 2018. (Image credit: SpaceX)

"According to one source, the payload fell back to Earth along with the spent upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket," Ars Technica's Eric Berger wrote.

To be clear: There is no official word of any bad news, just some rumblings to that effect. And the rocket apparently did its job properly, SpaceX representatives said.

"We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now, reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally," company spokesman James Gleeson told Space.com via email.

Space.com also reached out to representatives of aerospace company Northrop Grumman, which built Zuma for the U.S. government. "This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions," Northrop Grumman spokesman Lon Rains said via email.

Classified indeed. Pretty much all we know about Zuma is its vague destination — low-Earth orbit. It's unknown what the satellite will do, or even which government agency is charged with operating it.

If we hear anything else about Zuma's status, we'll let you know.

Zuma is widely regarded as a national-security mission. Before Sunday, SpaceX had launched just two national-security payloads — the NROL-76 satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office in May 2017 and the Air Force's robotic X-37B space plane this past September.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.