Launch by SpaceX of the Zuma satellite
Mission typeMilitary (classified)
OperatorNorthrop Grumman, for the U.S. government[3]
COSPAR ID2018-001A
SATCAT no.43098
Spacecraft properties
ManufacturerNorthrop Grumman
Start of mission
Launch date8 January 2018, 01:00 (2018-01-08UTC01) UTC[1]
RocketFalcon 9 Full Thrust
Launch siteCape Canaveral, SLC-40
End of mission
Decay date8 January 2018 (2018-01-09)?
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeLow Earth

USA-280 (codenamed "Zuma") was a classified United States government satellite that was launched by SpaceX on 8 January 2018.[1][4] The specific agency in charge of the Zuma project has not been disclosed, nor its purpose.[2][5] In November 2017, Northrop Grumman stated that the launch "is a monumental responsibility and has taken great care to ensure the most affordable and lowest risk scenario for Zuma."[6] The Wall Street Journal reported that the design was very sensitive to vibration and sudden shocks, and had a development cost approaching US$3.5 billion.[7][8]

Following the launch, unnamed sources stated that the satellite was lost during deployment and re-entered the atmosphere,[9] and independent investigations concluded that the spacecraft likely failed to separate from its payload adapter.[10]


In September 2017, SpaceX sent applications to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for special temporary authority to transmit signals at 2.2 GHz during launch of "Mission 1390", for the time period between November 2017 and April 2018.[11]

The satellite, manufactured by Northrop Grumman,[6] was initially scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) in mid-November 2017, and launch-license LLS 17-104 for the rocket was issued by the Office of Commercial Space Transportation on 9 November 2017.[12] Northrop Grumman purchased a payload adapter to customize the release mechanism, which was then tested three times on the ground prior to payload fairing encapsulation.[7]

The Falcon rocket performed a static fire test as part of its pre-flight preparation, but results from a payload fairing test for another customer led to a delay of nearly two months.[13] On 22 December 2017, the launch license was re-issued with a change of the launchpad from Launch Complex 39A to Launch Complex 40.[12] The launch was subsequently rescheduled for 4 January 2018, and was further delayed because of weather concerns related to the January 2018 North American blizzard.[14][15]

The satellite was launched on 8 January 2018 at 01:00 UTC from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida.[16] The Falcon 9 first stage touched down at Landing Zone 1, and SpaceX later announced that all data indicated the launch vehicle had performed properly.[17] At approximately 03:15 UTC, the pilot of an aircraft traveling over Khartoum, as well as another person in Sudan, observed a spiral-shaped fuel dump attributed to the re-entering upper stage.[18][19][20]


The fate of the spacecraft is not publicly known. According to unsourced media claims, U.S. lawmakers were reportedly briefed about the loss of the spacecraft[4] and an unnamed government official said that it had re-entered the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean,[9][21] possibly due to a failure in the payload adapter provided by Northrop Grumman in detaching from the second stage.[4][22] According to The Wall Street Journal, sensors had not reported the initial failure to detach.[7] Later on, Zuma did ultimately detach from the upper stage payload adapter, but only after it was too late and with the orbit too low to attempt a rescue of the satellite.[7][8]

President and COO of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell stated, "For clarity: 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. Due to the classified nature of the payload, no further comment is possible."[23] Lon Rains, Communications Director of Northrop Grumman, stated that the company could not comment on the status of classified missions.[4] Three days later, the Zuma mission patch had been removed from sale in the souvenir shop at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum and from online sales.[24]

On 8 April 2018, The Wall Street Journal reported that two independent investigations "tentatively concluded" that the spacecraft failed to separate from the payload adapter after launch due to errors introduced by Northrop Grumman. The adapter had been bought by Northrop Grumman from a subcontractor and heavily modified for use on the mission.[10][7] Due to the classified nature of the mission, detailed information on the satellite and its fate may not be publicly released.[25] Officially, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) still lists the satellite but with no orbital parameters and the orbital status code "no elements available", which is standard procedure for classified missions.[26][27]

In the media

The U.S. government has not publicly stated if there was a failure of Zuma,[28] and this secrecy has generated speculations on its purpose and its fate.[29] A number of articles published by the amateur satellite tracking community stated that if the satellite was still in orbit or operating covertly, then it would likely be located visually.[30][31][32] In the process of searching for Zuma, amateur astronomers instead found radio transmissions from IMAGE, a NASA satellite that was lost in 2005.[33]



  1. ^ a b c Harwood, William (9 January 2018). "Fate of mystery Zuma satellite in question". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  2. ^ a b Grush, Loren (7 January 2018). "SpaceX launched the mysterious Zuma satellite — and successfully landed its rocket afterward". The Verge. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  3. ^ a b Gebhardt, Chris (7 January 2018). "SpaceX launches of clandestine Zuma satellite – questions over spacecraft's health". NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Grush, Loren (9 January 2018). "Did SpaceX's secret Zuma mission actually fail?". The Verge. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  5. ^ Kelly, Emre (15 November 2017). "Elon Musk's SpaceX launch is a secret government mission". USA Today. Florida Today. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  6. ^ a b Seemangal, Robin (16 November 2017). "SpaceX's Top Secret Zuma Mission Set to Launch". Wired. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e Pasztor, Andy (9 April 2018). "Probes Point to Northrop Grumman Errors in January Spy-Satellite Failure". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 8 April 2018.
  8. ^ a b Sheetz, Michael (9 April 2018). "Northrop Grumman, not SpaceX, reported to be at fault for loss of top-secret Zuma satellite". Yahoo! Finance. CNBC. Retrieved 26 August 2018.
  9. ^ a b Martinez, Luis; Dooley, Erin; Sunseri, Gina (9 January 2018). "Classified satellite fell into ocean after SpaceX launch, official confirms". ABC News. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  10. ^ a b Masunaga, Samantha (9 April 2018). "Zuma satellite plunged after SpaceX launch because of Northrop Grumman errors, report says". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  11. ^ Wilkins, Christopher (9 September 2017). Application for Special Temporary Authority (Report). Federal Communications Commission. SpaceX. Operation Start Date: ... Operation End Date: ... communications for SpaceX Mission 1390 ... 2255.5- MHz ... 2272.5- MHz
  12. ^ a b Wong, Kenneth (22 December 2017). License Number: LLS 17-104 (Rev 1) (PDF) (Report). Commercial Space Transportation License. Office of Commercial Space Transportation. SpaceX. Retrieved 20 August 2018. Zuma mission ... Original Issued: November 9, 2017 ... Rev 1 Issued: December 22, 2017 ... Changed "Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center (KSC)" to "Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station(CCAFS)"
  13. ^ Clark, Stephen (6 December 2017). "Test-firing at repaired launch pad clears way for SpaceX cargo flight next week". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 2 January 2018.
  14. ^ Malik, Tariq (5 January 2018). "SpaceX Delays Mysterious Zuma Spacecraft Launch to Sunday". Space.com. Retrieved 5 January 2018.
  15. ^ "Launch Schedule". Spaceflight Now. 5 January 2018. Archived from the original on 8 January 2018.
  16. ^ Clark, Stephen (8 January 2018). "SpaceX kicks off ambitious 2018 schedule with launch for U.S. government". Spaceflight Now. Retrieved 9 January 2018.
  17. ^ Rosenfeld, Everett; Kharpal, Arjun (8 January 2018). "Highly classified US spy satellite appears to be a total loss after SpaceX launch". CNBC. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  18. ^ Malik, Tariq (9 January 2018). "Strange Sky Spiral May Come from Secretive SpaceX Zuma Launch". Space.com. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  19. ^ Seemangal, Robin (9 January 2018). "Is SpaceX's Covert Zuma Payload Missing in Action?". Wired. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  20. ^ McKinnon, Mika (10 January 2018). "What Went Wrong With the Launch of the Secretive Zuma Satellite?". Smithsonian. Retrieved 20 August 2018.
  21. ^ Starr, Barbara; Herb, Jeremy; Isidore, Chris; Wattles, Jackie (9 January 2018). "Zuma spacecraft launched by SpaceX is lost after failing to enter stable orbit". CNN. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  22. ^ Hignett, Katherine (11 January 2018). "Elon Musk's SpaceX Not the Cause of Zuma Secret Satellite Mission Failure, Experts Suggest". Newsweek. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  23. ^ Shotwell, Gwynne (9 January 2018). "Statement From Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO of SpaceX on Zuma Launch" (Press release). SpaceX. Retrieved 10 January 2018 – via SpaceRef.com.
  24. ^ Pearlman, Robert (12 January 2018). "SpaceX pulls Zuma mission patches from sale amid reports of secret satellite's loss". collectSPACE. Retrieved 21 August 2018.
  25. ^ Berger, Eric (8 January 2018). "It's not official, but sources say the secretive Zuma satellite was lost". Ars Technica. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  26. ^ Kelso, T. S. (9 January 2018). "Raw SATCAT Data". Celestrak. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  27. ^ Kelso, T. S. (9 January 2018). "SATCAT Format Documentation". Celestrak. Retrieved 11 January 2018.
  28. ^ Berger, Eric (19 January 2018). "The Zuma failure has emboldened critics of SpaceX". Ars Technica. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  29. ^ Paez, Danny (9 January 2018). "Theories are Swirling About SpaceX-Zuma's "Failed" Mission". Inverse. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  30. ^ Griggs, Mary Beth (11 January 2018). "Meet the amateur astronomers who track secretive spy satellites for fun". Popular Science. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  31. ^ Clark, Colin (11 January 2018). "Zuma: A New Twist On Space Radar?". Breaking Defense. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  32. ^ Langbroek, Marco (11 January 2018). "[Updated] A potential use for satellites in Zuma-like 50-degree inclined orbits". SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  33. ^ Chirgwin, Richard (29 January 2018). "Zombie ... in SPAAACE: Amateur gets chatty with 'dead' satellite". The Register. Retrieved 20 August 2018.