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Falcon 9 launch for Orbcomm slips to first week of July

Posted: June 23, 2014

SpaceX and Orbcomm announced Monday they have pushed back the launch of a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral with six commercial communications satellites until at least the first week of July.

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad for the Orbcomm OG2 mission. Credit: SpaceX
Officials said the delay gives engineers time to evaluate an unspecified issue found during pre-flight preparations Sunday, which forced SpaceX to call off a launch attempt for the third consecutive day.

Managers initially hoped to be ready to launch the long-delayed mission Tuesday.

The delay also allows the U.S. Air Force to complete maintenance on the Eastern Range, a network of communications stations, tracking radars and other assets that support launches from Cape Canaveral.

A spokesperson with the Air Force's 45th Space Wing did not respond to a request for details on the maintenance activities, including when the work was scheduled for completion.

"SpaceX is taking a closer look at a potential issue identified while conducting pre-flight checkouts during yesterday's countdown," a SpaceX spokesperson said in a statement. "SpaceX will stand down Tuesday while our engineering teams evaluate further, which will also allow the Range to move forward with previously scheduled maintenance."

SpaceX has not disclosed any information on the problem, but sources said the issue was with the Falcon 9 launcher. A report by CBS News, citing an unnamed source, said the problem may be an engine actuator used to steer the Falcon 9 rocket in flight.

The Falcon 9 rocket's first stage is powered by nine Merlin 1D engines, which generate about 1.3 million pounds of thrust at sea level. The second stage has a single Merlin 1D engine fitted with an expansion nozzle to optimize its performance in space.

SpaceX said Sunday the Falcon 9 rocket would stay on the launch pad, but the launcher was rolled back into the hangar overnight Sunday.

"We are currently targeting the first week of July and will work with the Range to confirm the next available launch opportunities," SpaceX said in a statement.

The machine-to-machine communications satellites on the Falcon 9 rocket will expand Orbcomm's capacity, allowing clients to send bigger messages at higher speeds. Six spacecraft are on this launch, and SpaceX is scheduled to launch 11 more satellites on another Falcon 9 rocket before the end of the year to round out the upgraded fleet.

The second-generation, or OG2, spacecraft will join the Orbcomm's 25 operating first-generation satellites and two ship-tracking satellites used by the company, according to Marc Eisenberg, CEO of Orbcomm.

Orbcomm is paying SpaceX $42.6 million for the two Falcon 9 launches, a discount from the approximately $60 million per launch price advertised on SpaceX's website.

Built by Sierra Nevada Corp., the Orbcomm OG2 satellites were originally contracted to fly on the smaller Falcon 1 booster, but SpaceX discontinued production of the Falcon 1 rocket and the satellites were switched to the more powerful Falcon 9.

Being the first commercial customer to pay for a SpaceX launch also helped Orbcomm secure a low price for two Falcon 9 flights, Eisenberg said.

Orbcomm began investing in the $230 million second-generation satellite program in 2005.

SpaceX planned to launch the Orbcomm satellites May 10, but SpaceX ordered a delay after engineers saw a leak in the rocket's first stage helium pressurization system during a customary prelaunch countdown dress rehearsal.

SpaceX released no additional information on the nature of the problem, or its actions to correct the leak, but Orbcomm officials were satisfied with the fix.

The flight was delayed another week to June 20 to analyze a minor concern with one of the six 375-pound Orbcomm satellites on-board the rocket.

The launch team aborted Friday's countdown after detecting an unexpected drop in pressure in one the rocket's second stage propellant tanks. A source told Spaceflight Now the problem was traced to a valve in a liquid oxygen tank.

Another launch attempt Saturday was thwarted by lightning at Cape Canaveral.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.