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Orbcomm craft falls to Earth, company claims total loss

Posted: October 11, 2012

The prototype Orbcomm data communications satellite launched into an incorrect orbit by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket Sunday has re-entered and burned up in Earth's atmosphere, and although its owners say the mission achieved several objectives, Orbcomm is claiming the mission a total loss.

An Orbcomm second-generation satellite during ground testing. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.
The 363-pound satellite was deployed in a lower-than-planned orbit by the Falcon 9 rocket following Sunday's liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The Falcon 9 lost a first stage engine during launch, and the mishap was responsible for the fate of the Orbcomm satellite.

The spacecraft, assembled by Sierra Nevada Corp., was designed as a pathfinder for Orbcomm's second-generation, or OG2, satellite constellation providing two-way data communications for corporate customers.

But the satellite was placed in an unstable low-altitude orbit, and the craft did not have enough propellant to raise its orbit to the desired height of 750 kilometers, or about 466 miles.

In a press release issued Thursday, the New Jersey-based firm said it has filed a notice of claim under it launch insurance policy for a total loss of OG2 prototype satellite. Orbcomm said the policy covers a maximum loss of $10 million, which would "largely offset the expected cost of the OG2 prototype and associated launch services and insurance."

According to Orbcomm, the satellite functioned as planned while it was in orbit. The ground control team established contact with the craft, successfully issued commands, and the satellite's solar array and communications antenna were extended.

"The OG2 satellite bus systems including power, attitude control, thermal and data handling were also tested to verify proper operation," Orbcomm's statement said. "The unique communications payload, which incorporates a highly reprogrammable software radio with common hardware for both gateway and subscriber messaging, also functioned as expected."

SpaceX and NASA are reviewing flight data from the Falcon 9 rocket to understand what happened to one of the launcher's nine Merlin first stage engines soon after launch. The engine shut down about 79 seconds after liftoff, forcing the rocket's remaining engines to burn longer to compensate for the loss in performance.

"As a result of shutting down one of its nine engines early shortly after the launch, the Falcon 9 rocket used slightly more fuel and oxygen to reach the target orbit for Dragon," SpaceX said Wednesday in a written statement.

The rocket placed the Dragon cargo craft, its primary payload, on a good trajectory to reach the International Space Station. The commercial capsule reached the space station Wednesday on the first operational private resupply flight to the outpost.

But the Orbcomm satellite was supposed to separate in a higher orbit than Dragon, requiring a second ignition of the Falcon 9's second stage engine.

The Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral with the Dragon spacecraft and Orbcomm satellite at 8:35 p.m. EDT. Credit: NASA-KSC
"For the protection of the space station mission, NASA had required that a restart of the upper stage only occur if there was a very high probability (over 99 percent) of fully completing the second burn," the SpaceX statement said. "While there was sufficient fuel on board to do so, the liquid oxygen on board was only enough to achieve a roughly 95 percent likelihood of completing the second burn, so Falcon 9 did not attempt a restart."

The requirement was put in place to protect the space station out of concern the OG2 satellite would come too close to the 450-ton complex.

The OG2 payload on Sunday's launch was slated to fly on SpaceX's last launch in May, but NASA requested the satellite be removed from that flight, which was a demonstration mission to the space station.

Orbcomm has booked two Falcon 9 launches for 17 more communications satellites. Eight spacecraft will fly on a dedicated Falcon 9 flight in mid-2013, and the rest of the constellation will lift off on another Falcon 9 rocket in 2014, according to Orbcomm.

The next-generation constellation is part of a $200 million expansion program to offer faster service through the Orbcomm system. The 18 satellites were constructed under a contract with Sierra Nevada valued at $117 million in 2008 dollars.

"Had Orbcomm been the primary payload on this mission, as planned for the upcoming launches, we believe the OG2 prototype would have reached the desired orbit," Orbcomm said Thursday.

SpaceX's next launch is scheduled for January on another commercial resupply flight to the space station. The company has more than a half-dozen Falcon flights on the manifest for 2013, including a mix of space station missions and commercial launches.

SpaceX plans the first launch of an enhanced Falcon 9 rocket with upgraded Merlin engines and larger propellant tanks in the first half of 2013.

"We have achieved our goal of repeatedly getting into orbit by creating a careful, methodical and pragmatic approach to the design, testing and launch of our space vehicles," SpaceX said. "We will approach our analysis in the same manner, with a careful examination of what went wrong and how to best address it."