Science

Conspiracy Theories Abound As SpaceX Denies Zuma Satellite Exploded

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride since SpaceX launched the top-secret satellite code-named Zuma, which has been claimed by none of the major U.S. intelligence agencies officially. It’s unclear what the Zuma satellite would do if it made it into space, but it’s generally believed to be a spy satellite of some kind. As a result, it’s only natural that multiple conspiracy theories have sprung up around the Zuma satellite. The only question is which of these theories is the correct one.

SpaceX Rocket zuma satellite
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

SpaceX launch seemed to go off without a hitch

Those who watched the live-stream of the SpaceX launch thought everything went as expected, and the Zuma satellite was delivered safely into orbit. Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company launched its Falcon 9 rocket carrying the classified satellite built by Northrop Grumman on Sunday night from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Various media reports indicate that the spy satellite could be valued at as much as $1 billion or possibly even more, but there’s no way of really knowing because of the vast amount of secrecy that has enveloped it. The payload on SpaceX’s Sunday launch was classified, so the company has said nothing about it, including which government agency owns it or even when it was supposed to release from the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket. There’s also no information about the intended orbit of the Zuma satellite or its purpose, according to CBS News.

Zuma satellite said to be destroyed

Although no problems were apparent on the live-stream, unlike past disasters that resulted in spectacular explosions, it didn’t take long for reports to appear suggesting that the Zuma satellite was destroyed. The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg all reported that the satellite failed to reach orbit, citing unnamed government and industry officials for the information.

The WSJ described the launch as a “botched mission,” adding that the Zuma satellite “is believed to have plummeted back into the atmosphere” never separated from the upper part of the Falcon 9 rocket. The newspaper explained that after the engine on the rocket’s second stage stops firing, the payload is supposed to separate and continue on, but if it doesn’t separate at the correct time or if it is damaged when it’s released, then it can fall back to Earth.

SpaceX issued a statement following the media reports about the Zuma satellite. The company denies that anything went wrong with the launch and said that the Falcon 9 “did everything correctly.” Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell described the reports as “categorically false,” adding that because the payload was classified, “no further comment is possible.”

Another conspiracy theory about the Zuma satellite

So we have two theories here which boil down to “he said, she said”: 1) The super-secret spy satellite is in space doing God knows what. 2) The super-secret spy satellite fell back to Earth or was destroyed in a botched launch attempt.

I’d like to add a third conspiracy theory to the pile. SpaceX claims the Falcon 9 rocket did exactly what it was supposed to do, so what if it did? All the media coverage surrounding the Zuma satellite suggests that it’s an extremely high-tech, sensitive spy satellite of some sort, although we have no idea exactly what its functions might be.

Because of all the attention the Zuma satellite has received, U.S. intelligence agencies might want the world to believe that the satellite never made it into orbit, even if it did. Consider the sources cited by the media outlets which reported that the satellite never made it into orbit: unnamed government officials.

Of course, if this theory turns out to be the true one, those who track satellites and objects orbiting Earth might notice eventually that the top-secret satellite (or something, anyway) is up there. On the other hand, if the satellite did fall back to Earth, then there should be other signs of that. Either way, it seems safe to say the story with this isn’t over yet.