The mystery surrounding the fate of a secret military satellite deepened today when the Pentagon refused to answer even simple questions about whether the mission to launch it had gone awry.
On Sunday, private space firm SpaceX blasted a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida carrying the secret government satellite, known as Zuma.
US media this week reported that the billion-dollar payload did not make it into orbit and was presumed to have been lost.
SpaceX said Tuesday that the rocket worked fine, but its statement left open the possibility that something could have gone wrong after the launch.
When asked at a press briefing if the Pentagon considered the launch a success or a failure, two officials declined to provide any information whatsoever because of the classified nature of the mission.
‘I would have to refer you to SpaceX, who conducted the launch,’ Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.
When pushed on the matter, fellow spokesman Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie said: ‘I’m done. We’re not going to be able to give you any more information.’
Northrup Grumman, the maker of the payload, has said it was for the US government and would be delivered to low-Earth orbit, but offered no other details.
SpaceX has launched national security payloads in the past, including a spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office, and an X-37B space plane for the US Air Force.
The satellite, codenamed Zuma, launched from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Sunday night, but it reportedly failed to remain in orbit, officials said Wednesday.
The classified intelligence satellite, built by Northrop Grumman Corp, failed to separate from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket and is assumed to have broken up or plunged into the sea, said two officials, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The satellite is assumed to be ‘a write-off,’ one of the officials said.
The presumed loss of the satellite was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Northrop Grumman built the multibillion-dollar satellite, code-named Zuma, and was responsible for choosing the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle, both officials said.
An investigation is under way, but there is no initial indication of sabotage or other interference, they said.
Lawmakers and congressional staffers from the Senate and the House have been briefed about the botched mission, some of the officials told the Wall Street Journal.
It claims the payload was ‘an expensive, highly classified U.S. spy satellite.’
SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell defended the company’s rocket performance launch of Zuma, saying that the Falcon 9 rocket ‘did everything correctly’ and suggestions otherwise are ‘categorically false’.
Northrop Grumman — which provided the satellite for an undisclosed US government entity — said it cannot comment on classified missions.
The company chose SpaceX as the launch provider, noting late last year that it took ‘great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma’.
The name refers to a Malibu beach in Southern California. This was SpaceX’ s third classified mission for the US government, a lucrative customer.
It was so shrouded in secrecy that the sponsoring government agency was not even identified, as is usually the case.
The Falcon’s first stage completed its job, lifting the rocket off the pad and toward space, then separated and landed back at Cape Canaveral.
But second-stage information was kept to a minimum because of all the secrecy surrounding the flight.
The rocket’s second stage propels the satellite into orbit; however, an official confirmed to ABC News that the satellite was unable to stay in orbit.
The Wall Street Journal quoted unidentified congressional officials who were briefed on the mission as saying the satellite apparently did not separate from the second stage, and plunged through the atmosphere and burned up.
Originally scheduled for a November launch, Zuma was delayed by potential concern about another mission’s payload fairing, the shell on top that protects a satellite during launch. The company later said it had cleared the issue.
Shotwell said in a statement that since no rocket changes are warranted for upcoming flights, the company’s launch schedule remains on track.
If additional reviews uncover any problems, she said, ‘we will report it immediately’.
Experts claimed the satellite was ‘dead in orbit’ – but say the information blackout around the launch means we may never know its fate.
Peter B. de Selding, a spaceflight reporter for’Space Intel Report’ claimed a source told him the satellite ‘may be dead in orbit after separation’.
‘Info blackout renders any conclusion – launcher issue? Satellite-only issue? – impossible to draw.’ he added.
SpaceX told Selding: ‘We do not comment on missions of this nature; but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally.’
Photos and video show the launch of Zuma lighting up the Florida sky but the exact position of its orbit was kept a secret.
The ship launched in an orbit less than 1,200 miles from Earth and within two minutes disengaged its rocket booster, which then traveled back to and landed right at the Air Force Station.
Much of the trip was kept secret and it was not revealed where the ship traveled to in the atmosphere.
Selding said the lack of information was an issue.
‘Distasteful to announce this stuff without beyond-reasonable-doubt certitude,’ he tweeted.
‘But if those in the know refuse to speak publicly, we all abhor the vacuum; the facts will emerge one way or another.’
The launch was broadcast on SpaceX’s website but the entire mission was not live-streamed. What the ship is made out of, among other questions, has not been revealed to the public.
Previous reasons given for the delay in its launch were further testing being necessary and weather-related conditions.
Musk, meanwhile announced on January 4 that SpaceX will launch ‘the world’s most powerful rocket’ later this month with his own electric car on board.
The Falcon Heavy ‘megarocket’ will fire beyond orbit from the former Apollo 11 moon rocket launchpad at the Kennedy Space Centre near Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Musk said the launch vehicle will blast off at the ‘end of the month’ on an unmanned mission with a unique payload – the billionaire’s cherry red 2008 Tesla Roadster, which will be fired toward Mars.
The rocket will use 27 engines and three separate re-usable cores that will return to Earth after liftoff during the test flight, which is set to be one of the firm’s most technically complex challenges to date.
Before the maiden launch, a full test firing of the rocket’s engines is expected, Musk said.
‘Falcon Heavy now vertical on the former Apollo 11 moon rocket launchpad,’ he wrote on Instagram on Thursday.
‘At 2,500 tons of thrust, equal to 18 Boeing 747 aircraft at full throttle, it will be the most powerful rocket in the world by a factor of two. Excitement on launch day guaranteed, one way or another.
‘Hold-down test fire next week. Launch end of the month.’
When it lifts off for the first time in late January, the Falcon Heavy will become the most powerful rocket in the world thanks to its 5.1 million pounds of thrust generated through 27 Merlin engines.
The vast rocket, which is ultimately three Falcon 9 rockets linked together, will have the combined thrust to eventually launch 140,000 pounds (63,500kg) of cargo into orbit.
The mission marks SpaceX’s most ambitious project to date.
Musk founded SpaceX in 2002, with the aim of reducing space transportation costs and enabling the colonisation of Mars.
The 46-year-old South African is also the CEO of Tesla, and predicts Falcon Heavy’s payload will stay in deep space for a while.
A photo of the unusual cargo – Musk’s cherry red 2008 Tesla Roadster – was released last month.
Images released by SpaceX show an original Roadster perched on a large cone inside the Falcon Heavy on what appears to be a secure mount to keep it stationary as the rocket makes its maiden flight.
‘Test flights of new rockets usually contain mass simulators in the form of concrete or steel blocks. That seemed extremely boring,’ Musk said in December.
‘Of course, anything boring is terrible, especially companies, so we decided to send something unusual, something that made us feel.
‘The payload will be an original Tesla Roadster, playing Space Oddity, on a billion year elliptic Mars orbit.’
If all goes according to plan, the Falcon Heavy will lift off and enter Earth’s orbit, before two of its booster rockets separate off and return to Earth at Cape Canaveral in controlled landings.
The rocket’s central core will then separate from the main module, containing Musk’s car, and begin its own controlled descent back to Earth, landing on the firm’s ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ drone ship in the Pacific Ocean.
The main module will continue its trajectory into ‘deep space’, the billionaire said, with a destination set for the orbit of Mars 140 million miles (225 million kilometres) away.
Musk has said the payload ‘will be in deep space for a billion years or so if it doesn’t blow up on ascent.’
In a Washington, D.C., speech last July the Tesla founder which said Falcon Heavy is one of the most difficult and technically complex projects SpaceX has ever undertaken.
‘There’s a lot of risk associated with Falcon Heavy,’ he said during the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development Conference.
‘Real good chance that the vehicle doesn’t make it to orbit. I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.’
Musk has spent the proceeding months building up hype for the historic launch with a series of social media posts.
Last month he posted an image to Twitter of people stoof next to a landed Falcon Heavy rocket to give an idea of the vehicle’s scale.
He tweeted: ‘Falcon Heavy launching from same @NASA pad as the Saturn V Apollo 11 moon rocket.
‘It was 50% higher thrust with five F-1 engines at 7.5M lb-F.
‘I love that rocket so much.’
He also confirmed the rocket will have a ‘max thrust at lift-off is 5.1 million pounds or 2300 metric tons,’ adding the first mission will run at 92 per cent capacity.
‘Falcon Heavy to launch next month from Apollo 11 pad at the Cape.
‘Will have double thrust of next largest rocket. Guaranteed to be exciting, one way or another,’ Musk originally posted.