Now, I realise this question is inherently unanswerable due to the classified nature of the mission, and speculation is also not desirable, but that's okay — because we can at least assemble official sources into something that resembles the most up to date information we have. So...

What was the outcome of the launch of ZUMA by SpaceX, to the best of the public's knowledge?

For those unaware, SpaceX conducted its 3rd secretive national security launch on January 4^th 2018, launching a payload known by the name of ZUMA, which was developed (including its payload adaptor) by Northrop Grumman.

Soon after launch, however, rumors started swirling that some kind of mishap had occurred. These were fanned hardest by Are Technica's Senior Space Editor, Eric Berger, who published an article entitled "It’s not official, but sources say the secretive Zuma satellite was lost", who suggested a number of possibilities, ranging from the payload failing to deploy, or some mishap with the Falcon 9 upper stage occurring.

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Despite this, Elon Musk was more than happy to share mission success on social media, taking to Twitter & Instagram afterwards. Sources state that prior to the mission, he had also made comments about the importance of this specific payload to the company.

So, what do we know?

Again, please, no speculation. Hard knowledge and sources only — the more the better.


2 Answers 2


What is known:

  • SpaceX issued a statement saying that the Falcon 9 performed as intended
  • An object was seen with spinning plumes that is assumed to be a Falcon 9 upper stage post-thrust fuel dump. This occurred at about 2 hours, 15 minutes after launch, over Africa.
  • The official timeline/ press brief
  • The customer of Zuma was an unnamed US Government agency.
  • Space Track has an official ID for this object, USA 280, 43098. They have not listed it as decayed, as of now.
  • There has been (or soon will be) one or more classified congressional briefings on the presumed failure.
  • Thus far, it has not been seen by amateurs. That isn't really a surprise, it will take time to rule out anything being there.

What is strongly rumored. These occur in multiple news outlets, but there isn't anything that one can confirm.

  • There was a failure of the Zuma vehicle, either in separating from the upper stage, or else it appeared dead on orbit. Some anonymous reports have come out that the satellite failed.
  • Northrup Grumman supplied the payload adapter. This isn't explicitly stated, but Northup Grumman has seemed to agree with that statement.
  • Elon Musk claimed that Zuma was the "Most important and expensive payload" that SpaceX has ever launched.
  • At at least one of the congressional briefings, finger pointing between SpaceX and Northrup Grumman has occurred as to who is responsible for the failure of the Zuma satellite.

Other source material that seems confusing

  • Fairing separation was announced much after it was expected to happen. It is believed that it was observed to occur on time via visual observation, however.
  • USLaunchReport reported SECO at 7:15, which is much earlier then it should have been (Expected closer to 9:00)

The best article on just the facts I've seen is this one. This one also does a good job at pointing of the validity of rumors.

In April 2018, it was reported the Wall Street Journal saw a report which reached the tentative conclusion Zuma failed to separate from The F9 upper stage, and so re-entered after one and a half orbits.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Not sure if this is worth factoring into your answer, but as an additional piece of the puzzle Matt Desch (CEO of Iridium, big customer of SpaceX) just publicly stated it was an industry smear job against SpaceX as a newcomer. He specifically blames NG, though the extant that is knowledge vs speculation is hard to say. His speculation is more informed than most, at least. twitter.com/IridiumBoss/status/951565202629320705 $\endgroup$
    – Saiboogu
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 22:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's as informed as many of the senators taking place. As a customer of SpaceX, he can probably look at some of the performance data that isn't public, but isn't classified. Maybe they can show him, for instance, the flight path error, the actual load sustained, etc. Unfortunately, I doubt he has access to the data that most matters. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 0:10
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Okay, so the Irridium quote is pure speculation, based on his knowledge. As it doesn't really have anything of value, I've removed it. twitter.com/IridiumBoss/status/951591058919645185 $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 16:10
  • $\begingroup$ There's a proposal to close another question as a duplicate of this. Sometimes I have a hard time reading prose. Is the answer to the "Did it complete at least one orbit?" part of my question answered here? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Sep 12, 2020 at 15:08

SpaceX published a message from Gwynne Shotwell explaining that the first and second stage performed nominally and they cannot comment upon the status of a classified mission.

Gwynne's statement, retweeted by ChrisB from NSF

Northrup Grumman also supplied the payload adapter, the connection between the payload and the second stage. If the failure was there, then the second stage could have properly separated but the payload adapter might have been the issue, or the satellite itself. But SpaceX is standing firm that the booster performed properly, without commenting on the payload itself.

  • $\begingroup$ Good answer! Would you mind incorporating elements from the observations of astronomers (such as twitter.com/Marco_Langbroek) about orbital data & SpaceTrack too? Happy to accept after that :) $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 7:22
  • $\begingroup$ That what was not their fault? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble rewrote that sentence. $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 13:55
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Do we know, sans speculation as proscribed by the question, that there was in fact a failure? This answer refers to "the failure". I do not believe that any official source (SpaceX, the US Government, Northrop) has stated that there is a failure. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 13:58
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The closest to an official declaration is from a Senator, but it reads like a witch hunt with someone who only knows what was published in the news. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 20:13

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