Did Elon Musk Lose Secret U.S Government Satellite? SpaceX Zuma May Have Failed to Reach Orbit

Updated | Elon Musk's SpaceX finally launched its mysterious Zuma satellite on Sunday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. To viewers of the live stream, the launch seemed like a success. The Falcon 9 rocket carrying Zuma blasted off and appeared to shed "stage one," as planned.

However, cameras did not follow stage two of the rocket, and reports suggest Zuma may not have reached its final orbit.

1_9_SpaceX Zuma Launch
SpaceX launches Zuma from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 7. SpaceX/Flickr/Public Domain

Industry and government officials believe the craft failed to reach its goal, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. Zuma may not have separated from the upper part of the Falcon 9 rocket and instead plunged back into the Earth's atmosphere.

Originally planned to launch back in November, Zuma had a secret payload for the U.S. government. Aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman—which worked on the mission with SpaceX on behalf of the government—told Space.com its function was "restricted" and was being fired into "low-Earth orbit."

Beset by months of delays, the confidential craft was strapped to a Falcon 9 rocket and finally launched on January 7 at 8 p.m. ET. Viewers watched the rocket power up and blast off from its launchpad. As planned, the main engine was cut around two and a half minutes into the launch, and the Falcon 9 split into stage one and stage two.

Boosters sent stage one back to the ground roughly eight minutes after the launch. A second engine was intended to propel stage two—which carried Zuma—into low-Earth orbit.

Brian Mahlstedt, an automation software engineer at SpaceX, told live-stream viewers: "We're not going to show video coverage of it, but we will confirm that the fairings have separated, meaning that Zuma and second stage are the only vehicles continuing on to their final orbit."

However, it appears that Zuma did not make it into orbit. Staff from the Senate and House have reportedly been briefed on the failure of the mission. According to The Wall Street Journal, industry officials have estimated Zuma cost billions of dollars.

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell weighed in on the mystery in a statement emailed to Gizmodo. "For clarity: after review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night," she said. "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 company could not comment further, Shotwell said, because of Zuma's classified payload.

This article has been updated to include a statement from Gwynne Shotwell.