A military satellite launched at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. apparently failed and crashed into the sea. The second stage of the rocket was the cause of the malfunction and represents a big setback in the company’s rocket program.

The mission — referred to by the code name Zuma — took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida Sunday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. But the U.S. Strategic Command, which monitors more than 23,000 man-made objects in space, said it is not tracking any new satellites following the launch.

“We have nothing to add to the satellite catalog at this time,” Navy Captain Brook DeWalt, a spokesman for the command, said in an email when asked if the new satellite was in orbit.

A U.S. official and two congressional aides familiar with the launch said on condition of anonymity that the second-stage booster section of the Falcon 9 failed. The satellite was lost, one of the aides said, and the other said both the satellite and second-stage rocket fell into the ocean.

It’s also possible that the Zuma satellite failed to properly separate, meaning the fault may not have been with the launch system, according to discussions on SpaceX’s twitter feed. Commentary during a webcast of the launch appeared to confirm that the fairings housing the payload were successfully deployed.

Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Corp., which was commissioned by the Defense Department to choose the launch contractor, said “we cannot comment on classified missions.” Army Lieutenant Colonel Jamie Davis, the Pentagon spokesman for space policy, referred questions to SpaceX.

The SpaceX launch had been setback several times in the past few weeks, notably for the weather and storm that bracketed the East Coast last week. The company is due to make 30 launches this year, up from 18, a year ago.

SpaceX competes with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin for military launches.

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Photo courtesy Wikipedia

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