SpaceX Falcon 9 boosts Orbcomm data sats to orbit

Editor's note...
  • Posted at 11:30 PM ET, 07/14/14: SpaceX Falcon 9 carries Orbcomm data sats to space
  • Updated at 01:45 PM ET, 07/14/14: Satellites successfully deployed; first stage breaks up on ocean impact
CBS News

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted six lightweight Orbcomm data relay satellites into orbit Monday in a commercial launch marking the 10th success in a row for the California rocket builder and a major upgrade for Orbcomm's fleet of machine-to-machine cellular communications stations.

The launching came after a frustrating string of delays due to bad weather and technical issues, including a potential problem Monday that delayed liftoff nearly two hours. But engineers eventually cleared the rocket for flight and the Falcon 9's nine first stage engines roared to life at 11:15 a.m. EDT (GMT-4).

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying six Orbcomm data relay satellites toward orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
The 225-foot-tall booster majestically climbed away from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, arcing over the Atlantic Ocean through a partly cloudy sky trailing a jet of fiery exhaust and a deep, cracking roar that slowly faded. Ten minutes later, the rocket's second stage and its cargo of six Orbcomm satellites were in their planned preliminary orbit.

Because the payload was relatively light, the Falcon 9 first stage had plenty of propellant left over for another attempt to make a powered descent to an ocean splashdown, deploying landing legs in a test of technology that SpaceX engineers hope will eventually allow them to fly stages back to touchdown near the launch site for refurbishment and reuse.

A similar test during a Falcon 9 flight in April was successful, although stormy conditions at sea prevented recovery crews from salvaging the stage. This time around, the stage successfully reached the desired splashdown location and deployed its landing legs, but broke apart on water impact.

"Rocket booster reentry, landing burn & leg deploy were good, but lost hull integrity right after splashdown (aka kaboom)," Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief designer, said in a Tweet, adding that "detailed review of rocket telemetry needed to tell if due to initial splashdown or subsequent tip over and body slam."

But the primary goal of the Falcon 9 mission was putting the Orbcomm OG2 satellites into orbit to expand and improve the company's global communications network.

The satellites were released from the Falcon 9 second stage starting about 15 minutes after launch. Musk confirmed all six were successfully deployed -- "Flight 10 of Falcon 9 was good. All six ORBCOMM satellites deployed on target" -- and Orbcomm CEO Marc Eisenberg tweeted in reply, "6 for 6! Thanks SpaceX! ... We'll take it from here."

The new satellites are the first of 17 second-generation spacecraft Orbcomm plans to launch this year to begin replacing less capable satellites launched more than 15 years ago in a bid to improve global coverage for the company's more than 850,000 subscribers.

Weighing about 375 pounds each, the solar-powered OG2 satellites can handle six times more data and transmit twice as fast as the OG1 satellites they are replacing.

While small compared to general purpose communications satellites, they "are big birds compared to the old ones," Eisenberg told Spaceflight Now in a pre-launch interview. "I think we go from something like seven receivers to 48 receivers, and one transmitter to six transmitters. It just adds a massive amount of capacity in the sky."

New Jersey-based Orbcomm provides machine-to-machine (M2M) data relay services used by a wide variety of companies to track trucks, cargo containers and related transportation assets and to communicate with ships, buoys and even remote research stations. Orbcomm also provides inventory management, remote command and control and direct monitoring of heavy equipment, as well as services tailored for government applications.

The new OG2 satellites, built by Sierra Nevada Corp., will work in concert with 27 first-generation spacecraft already in orbit to reduce the time needed for customers to send and receive data.

The Falcon 9 second stage engine nozzle glows against the backdrop of Earth as it powers the rocket toward orbit. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

"One of the neat things about Orbcomm is that every satellite works independently of the whole group, so we don't have any of the cross-link concerns where if you lose some spacecraft, or you lose the spacecraft that's over the Earth station, the whole network doesn't work," Eisenberg said in the earlier interview.

"Orbcomm has Earth stations around the globe, and every satellite works independently. Should you have an issue with a particular satellite, you just space out the others and the average message takes a few more seconds. In addition to that, it's going to let the 27 spacecraft we have today play well with the 17 new ones because they all work independently. On these new spacecraft, one spacecraft ... will have more capacity than today's whole network."

Orbcomm was one of SpaceX's first commercial customers and originally expected to use less powerful Falcon 1 boosters. But SpaceX moved the satellites to its more powerful Falcon 9 rocket at no additional charge to Orbcomm.

Spaceflight Now reported that Orbcomm is paying SpaceX $42.6 million for two launchings, a substantial discount over the advertised $60 million price for a basic Falcon 9. The six satellites launched Friday were valued at around $70 million.

SpaceX carried the first OG2 satellite into space in 2012 as a secondary payload to a Dragon cargo ship carrying supplies to the International Space Station. One of the Falcon 9's first stage engines suffered a failure during ascent and while the Dragon spacecraft reached the proper orbit to rendezvous with the station, the Orbcomm satellite could not be boosted to the higher orbit it required.

But the spacecraft's solar arrays deployed normally and its communications systems worked as expected during its brief orbital lifetime, allowing engineers to verify the performance of the satellite's major systems.

SpaceX originally planned to launch the OG2 mission in May, but the flight was repeatedly delayed, first by problems with a helium leak in the rocket's first stage propellant pressurization system and then because of concern about one of the six Orbcomm satellites.

The first actual launch attempt came on June 20, but another pressurization issue, this time in the rocket's second stage, forced a delay. Bad weather scotched a launch try on June 21 and a third attempt the next day was called off because of problems with the second stage steering system.