SpaceX’s Zuma Mission: Fate Of ‘Secret’ Satellite Still Unconfirmed As Company, Pentagon Offer Little Comment

Sources familiar with the mission maintain that technical issues led to Zuma's failure, but some conspiracy theorists believe a cover-up may be involved.

SpaceX's Zuma Mission: Fate Of 'Secret' Satellite Still Unconfirmed As Company, Pentagon Offer Little Comment
SpaceX / AP Images

Sources familiar with the mission maintain that technical issues led to Zuma's failure, but some conspiracy theorists believe a cover-up may be involved.

It’s been almost a week since SpaceX’s Zuma satellite was launched, and while it seemed like everything was going according to plan, rumors soon began to circulate that the satellite might have encountered some problems shortly after it launched, causing it to fall back to Earth and burn up while reentering the atmosphere. But with sources from SpaceX and the U.S. government mostly remaining silent on the matter, there have been rumors and conspiracy theories suggesting that Zuma didn’t malfunction after all, and might be serving its “secret” purpose to observe possible North Korean nuclear activities.

The Zuma satellite was SpaceX’s third classified launch, and while it was common knowledge that the mission was contracted by Northrop Grumman and meant for low-Earth orbit, Space.com noted that there were only a few details revealed about the secret mission. After originally being scheduled for November, SpaceX launched Zuma on Sunday, January 7, and all signs initially pointed to the launch being a success. But the next few days saw a number of reports suggest that there were some problems that might have led to the mission’s apparent failure.

Citing multiple sources familiar with the Zuma mission, Fortune wrote that there may have been some issues with the Falcon 9 booster rocket used to send the satellite into space. However, the sources gave varying accounts of what might have happened to the satellite afterward — one congressional aide said that it was lost, while another said that both satellite and second-stage rocket crashed into the ocean.

Reacting to the numerous reports suggesting that SpaceX’s Zuma mission had failed, the company’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, issued a statement saying that the Falcon 9 rocket “did everything correctly” on the night of the satellite’s launch.

“Information published that is contrary to this statement is categorically false. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible.”

Ars Technica reported on Saturday that both the U.S. Department of Defense and SpaceX have been cagey about the Zuma matter, with neither side confirming nor denying the mission’s success or failure. Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, for one, coursed inquiries about the mission back to SpaceX during a Wednesday media briefing, while Shotwell said that “it [wasn’t her] story to tell” when she was asked at a Thursday gathering of scientists and engineers about what happened to Zuma.

Due to the lack of official information regarding the fate of SpaceX’s Zuma satellite and the actual purpose of the secret mission, conspiracy theorists have come up with their own ideas, many of which suggest that Zuma could be an attempt to destabilize the North Korean government by cutting the country’s electricity and possibly “[forcing] Kim Jong-un into negotiations,” the Daily Dot wrote. Yet the publication stressed that it’s hard to trust an “anonymous 4chan troll claiming to be an intelligence insider,” and that said insider, who is known by the name “Q,” has had a history of posting information designed to take down the families of former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Despite allegations that the apparent failure of the Zuma mission is a form of misdirection designed to keep its objectives under wraps, most sources still maintain that the mission failed due to technical issues. According to Ars Technica, there are two far more plausible theories that could explain why SpaceX wasn’t able to launch Zuma into space as planned. The first, which goes against what SpaceX’s Shotwell had said in her statement, suggests that the Falcon 9 rocket’s upper stage was to blame for the failure, while the second, and reportedly more probable theory, hints that Northrop Grumman’s mechanism for releasing the satellite could have malfunctioned.