|Operator||Northrop Grumman for the US government|
|Start of mission|
|Launch date||8 January 2018, 01:00UTC|
|Rocket||Falcon 9 FT|
|Launch site||Cape Canaveral LC-40|
|End of mission|
|Decay date||8 January 2018|
USA-280 (codenamed "Zuma") was a classified United States government satellite that was launched by SpaceX on 8 January 2018. The specific agency in charge of the Zuma project has not been disclosed, nor its purpose. Unnamed sources have stated that the satellite was lost during deployment and re-entered the atmosphere, and independent investigations concluded that the spacecraft likely failed to separate from its payload adaptor.
The satellite, manufactured by Northrop Grumman, was initially scheduled to launch on a Falcon 9 from Kennedy Space Center LC-39A in mid-November 2017. The 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. The launch was subsequently rescheduled for 4 January 2018, and was further delayed because of weather-related concerns.
The satellite was launched on 8 January 2018 at 01:00 UTC from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 40 in Florida. 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.
US lawmakers were reportedly briefed about the loss of the spacecraft and an unnamed government official said that it had re-entered the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, possibly due to a failure in the payload adapter provided by Northrop Grumman in detaching from the second stage.
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. Since the data reviewed so far indicates that no design, operational or other changes are needed, we do not anticipate any impact on the upcoming launch schedule." Lon Rains, Communications Director of Northrop Grumman, stated that the company could not comment on the status of classified missions.
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. Due to the classified nature of the mission, detailed information on the satellite and its fate may not be publicly released. Officially, 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.
The US government has not publicly stated if there was a failure of Zuma, and this secrecy has generated speculations on its purpose and its fate. A number of articles published by the amateur satellite tracking community state that if the satellite is still in orbit and operating covertly, they will attempt to locate it visually. Until the end of January, Zuma was not visible from the Northern Hemisphere because all possible passes were in daylight or in Earth's shadow.
Long exposure of the launch and landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9
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