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Is SpaceX or Northrop to Blame for Lost Spy Satellite?

In this image made with a long exposure the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as seen from in Viera, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. (Tim Shortt/Florida Today via AP)
In this image made with a long exposure the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station as seen from in Viera, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. (Tim Shortt/Florida Today via AP)

The Pentagon has reportedly lost a highly classified, multi-billion-dollar satellite somewhere in space. And so far, it's unclear who's to blame.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. on Sunday launched the secret military payload, code-name Zuma, on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

And while the launch was deemed successful, the payload -- a satellite manufactured by Northrop Grumman Corp. -- failed to reach orbit, according to officials who spoke to Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal.

California-based SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, said the rocket was not to blame.

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"After review of all data to date, Falcon 9 did everything correctly on Sunday night," SpaceX told CNBC. "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."

As of Tuesday morning, there were differing explanations for what might have happened: One official said the upper stage of the Falcon 9 rocket failed, while another said Northrop's satellite never separated from the rocket, according to the Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal articles.

When asked about the misstep, Northrop told The Verge it would not publicly comment on a classified mission.

While the mission was livestreamed for viewers, part of the feed did not show the payload directly because of the mission's secrecy.

And it's still not clear which government agency was ultimately responsible for the effort.

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, an intelligence agency that falls under the Defense Department and initially believed by some observers to be connected to the mission, wasn't involved, according to a spokeswoman.

"The launch payload was not associated with the NRO," Karen Furgeson said in a brief telephone interview on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, SpaceX didn't characterize the Zuma payload as satellite, but rather described the payload as a "spacecraft" that would conduct a low-Earth orbit, according to the mission's press release.

The company on Friday announced via Twitter the launch -- which had been repeatedly delayed since November -- had been pushed back to Jan. 7 due to bad weather. Temperatures dipped into the 40s in parts of Florida last week. SpaceX tracked the mission, but never announced on Twitter whether it was successful; neither did Northrop.

Defense and congressional officials have been briefed of the failure, Bloomberg and WSJ reported.

It remains unclear whether the satellite failure will have an impact on SpaceX's military launch business.

SpaceX routinely competes with United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture space launch program headed by Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, for military launches.

In March, SpaceX beat out ULA for a $96.5 million contract with the U.S. Air Force to launch the GPS III satellite into orbit, making it the second contract the company has won with the service for space flights.

The Air Force awarded SpaceX its first substantial military contract in 2016 -- a deal valued at $83 million to launch a GPS satellite aboard its Falcon 9 rocket.

-- Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office was responsible for the mission. The story was updated to correct this reference and include a quote from an NRO spokesman in the 11th paragraph.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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