A secret American spy satellite code-named Zuma didn't reach orbit in Sunday's failed SpaceX rocket launch. The cost of the missing U.S. government asset, which officially doesn't exist and officially hasn't been lost, is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
The highly classified payload is “presumed to be a total loss.”
From the Wall Street Journal:
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.
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.
Space nerds and reporters are discussing on social media the possibility that some technical assertions in the WSJ are not correct. It's hard to verify something like this, given the highly classified nature of the "missing" payload. But it's likely more data will help solve the riddle within the coming days. See tweets below for a hint of the debate.
(1/5) About the rumours that #Zuma or its Falcon 9 failed: I have a positive, photographically documented observation of the Falcon 9 upper stage venting fuel after re-entry burn, ahead of re-entry, over East Africa some 2h15m after launch. Pretty much where it ought to be.— Dr Marco Langbroek (@Marco_Langbroek) January 8, 2018
Space-Track has cataloged the Zuma payload as USA 280, international designation 2018-001A. Catalog number 43098.— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) January 9, 2018
No orbit details given. No reentry date given, but for a secret payload it might not be. Implication is Space-Track thinks it completed at least one orbit
Conflicts with WSJ story that payload failed to separate from second stage (which is believed to have deorbited itself). Consistent with SpaceX claim that rocket behaved correctly— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) January 9, 2018
However the lack of unclassified data leaves a lot of wiggle room. Space-Track could be wrong in cataloging the object (happened with a failed Landsat in the 1990s which got estimated TLEs released by mistake).— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) January 9, 2018
There are a number of rumors, that the secretive Zuma satellite is dead on orbit. Unclear, if it was a satellite or launcher issue.https://t.co/JFLRhKBDgU— Gunter Krebs (@Skyrocket71) January 9, 2018