U.S. Spy Satellite Believed Lost After SpaceX Mission Fails -- Update

An expensive, highly classified U.S. spy satellite is presumed to be a total loss after it failed to reach orbit atop a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. rocket on Sunday, according to industry and government officials.

Lawmakers and congressional staffers from the Senate and the House have been briefed about the botched mission, some of the officials said. The secret payload--code-named Zuma and launched from Florida on board a Falcon 9 rocket--is believed to have plummeted back into the atmosphere, they said, because it didn't separate as planned from the upper part of the rocket.

Once the engine powering the rocket's expendable second stage stops firing, whatever it is carrying is supposed to separate and proceed on its own trajectory. If a satellite isn't set free at the right time or is damaged upon release, it can be dragged back toward earth.

Scheduled for mid-November, Zuma's launch was delayed when SpaceX announced engineers "wanted to take a closer look at data from recent" tests of a fairing, or protective covering for a satellite, used for another customer. At the time, the company didn't publicly outline what prompted the additional testing. Fairings are used to shield satellites that are carried near the nose of the rocket. They remain in place during the early phases of the ascent, but are jettisoned before final insertion into orbit.

During the launch, SpaceX didn't signal any problems with the fairing or associated hardware. Since then, it has declined to indicate whether such issues caused or contributed to Sunday's missteps.

The lack of details about what occurred means that some possible alternate sequence of events other than a failed separation may have been the culprit.

For rapidly growing SpaceX, which seeks to establish itself as a reliable, low-cost launch provider for the Pentagon, the failed mission came at an important juncture. The company is competing for more national-security launches against its primary rival, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

As of Monday night, nearly 24 hours after the launch, uncertainty surrounded both the mission and the fate of the satellite, which some industry officials estimated carried a price tag in the billions of dollars. Notably, the Pentagon's Strategic Command, which keeps track of all commercial, scientific and national-security satellites along with space debris, hadn't updated its catalog of objects to reflect a new satellite circling the planet.

Neither Northrop Grumman Corp., which built the satellite, nor SpaceX, as Elon Musk's space-transportation company is called, has shed light on what happened.

A Northrop Grumman spokesman said, "We cannot comment on classified missions."

A SpaceX spokesman said: "We do not comment on missions of this nature, but as of right now reviews of the data indicate Falcon 9 performed nominally." That terminology typically indicates that the rocket's engines and navigation systems operated without glitches. The spokesman declined to elaborate.

It isn't clear what job the satellite was intended to perform, or even which U.S. agency contracted for the satellite. As usual for classified launches, the information released by SpaceX before liftoff was bereft of details about the payload. A video broadcast Sunday night narrated by a SpaceX official didn't provide any hint of problems, though the feed ended before the planned deployment of the satellite.

Mr. Musk's closely held, Southern California-based company has projected ramping up its overall launch rate to more than 25 missions in 2018, from 18 in 2017, and is scheduled to start ferrying U.S. astronauts to the international space station before the end of the year.

If preparations remain on track, SpaceX later this month anticipates the maiden launch of its long-delayed Falcon Heavy rocket, featuring 27 engines putting out more power than roughly 18 Boeing 747 jumbo jets.

Northrop Grumman not only was the prime contractor for the satellite, it was also responsible for choosing the launch provider. Despite SpaceX's growing list of accomplishments, including routinely landing, refurbishing and reusing the main stages of Falcon 9 boosters, industry and government officials have said some in the intelligence community continue to have qualms about relying on Mr. Musk's nontraditional business practices.

Byron Tau contributed to this article.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 09, 2018 00:52 ET (05:52 GMT)