WASHINGTON – SpaceX is denying it played any part in the apparent failure of an expensive, mysterious government satellite system that launched Sunday.
The so-called Zuma satellite lifted off aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Sunday night. Little is known about Zuma, including the government agency who purchased the satellite or its mission, although it commonly has been referred to as a “spy satellite” in reports. The newspaper Florida Today reported that amateur satellite trackers who specialize in classified missions have guessed that Zuma would test new sensors for watching close approaches between spacecraft.
However, since the launch, the mission has led to a series of questions with few answers.
On Monday evening, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal reported that Zuma failed to activate correctly, and that rather than orbiting the planet, the system was crashing back to earth. An industry official familiar with the mission told C4ISRNET the satellite likely cost more than $3 billion.
Then Tuesday, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell issued a statement that, “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,” the statement continued. “Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.”
Members of the Congressional defense and intelligence committees reportedly were briefed on the issue late Monday, but remained tight lipped. Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told C4ISRNET he would like to talk about the Zuma situation but was not able to at this point.
“Space is a risky business,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the chairman of the House Armed Services’ strategic forces subcommittee. In that position, he said he was, “committed to providing rigorous oversight that accounts for that risk and ensures that we can meet all of our national security space requirements as the Air Force looks to competitively procure space launch services in the future.”
A spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the mission.
The Zuma system was built by Northrop Grumman. In a statement, a company spokesman said “This is a classified mission. We cannot comment on classified missions.”
SpaceX spent years fighting with the U.S. Air Force and Congress for the proper certification to carry military and intelligence payloads. Critics argued that the company was not mature enough to risk the sensitive military equipment that often cost billions of dollars, take years to develop and fill needed national security missions.
Joe Gould of Defense News contributed to this report from Washington.