ORBCOMM’s Long, Strange Trip into Orbit with SpaceX

Debris from the rupture of a Falcon 9 engine fairing during the Oct. 7 launch.

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

On Sept. 3, 2009, upstart rocket company SpaceX announced a major deal for its new launch vehicle. The company would launch 18 ORBCOMM satellites — several at a time — aboard its Falcon 1e rocket, an upgraded version of the Falcon 1 booster that had just notched its second successful flight.

ORBCOMM would get launches for its Generation 2 (OG2) machine-to-machine communication satellites at a bargain rate of $11 million per flight. The first flight would occur “as early as the fourth quarter of 2010” with the final one in 2014, allowing the company to gradually upgrade its existing satellite constellation. Each OG2 spacecraft promised to increase subscriber capacity by up to 12 times over the first-generation satellites then in orbit.

It all sounded great. But, things didn’t go quite according to plan…

Three years later, the Falcon 1e rocket is in limbo, having never never flown. The lone OG2 satellite launched by SpaceX re-entered the atmosphere last week after spending three days in the wrong orbit. And ORBCOMM has not been able to make any of the service upgrades it promised to subscribers.

The series of events that led to last week’s satellite loss began when SpaceX decided to shelve development of the Falcon 1e due to what it said was a lack of market demand. The rocket would have been capable of launching payloads weighing up to 1,010 kilograms (2,200 lb) into low Earth orbit.

SpaceX focused its energies on the larger, still-in-development Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX’s primary goal was to complete its obligations to NASA under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, which was funding the development of Falcon 9 and the Dragon freighter for cargo runs to the International Space Station (ISS).

The OG2 satellites took a back seat to this priority. ORBCOMM and SpaceX would also make a series of decisions that would intertwine the OG2 satellites with the Dragon flights, subjecting the communications satellites to NASA’s much stricter mission requirements.

In March 2011, ORBCOMM and SpaceX announced a plan to launch the first two OG2 satellites as secondary payloads on the first Dragon demonstration mission to ISS. The flight was was then scheduled for the end of 2011.

Under COTS, SpaceX had to perform three demonstration flights of the Falcon 9 and its Dragon freighter. The first, completed in December 2010, was a solo Dragon flight. The second mission, which would include the two OG2 satellites, would have a Dragon fly close to ISS but not berth with it. The third flight would include a berthing and cargo delivery.

Once those three demonstration missions were successfully completed, NASA would allow SpaceX to begin carrying cargo to the station under a $1.2 billion contract as part of the Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) program.

In July 2011, NASA gave tentative approval to combine both flights into one demonstration mission. This flight would be a challenging enough without adding secondary payloads to it. NASA was also very concerned that the OG2 satellites would not end up stranded in an orbit where they might threaten the safety of the space station.

In December 2011, ORBCOMM and SpaceX announced a new plan to include two OG2 satellites as secondary payloads aboard the first commercial resupply flight. Under the revised plan, this launch would be “followed closely by an additional launch of two OG2 satellites into a high inclination orbit as a secondary payload in late 2012. In early 2013, SpaceX plans to launch eight to twelve OG2 satellites, and the remainder of the constellation of 18 OG2 satellites is expected to be launched in 2014.”

SpaceX flew a successful Dragon demonstration mission to the space station in May 2012, paving the way for commercial resupply flights to begin. The plan changed again, with one OG2 demonstration satellite riding along on last week’s Dragon CRS flight. Two dedicated Falcon 9 flights carrying the rest of the OG2 constellation would follow as planned in 2013 and 2014.

A sudden loss of pressure caused the shutdown of engine no. 1 during last week’s Falcon 9 launch.  The other eight engines burned longer, allowing the Dragon freighter to reach its intended orbit. So, the primary mission — a Dragon docking with ISS — was not threatened by the anomaly.

The OG2 satellite remained attached to the second stage, which was supposed to fire again to put the spacecraft into a 350 by 750 mile orbit. However, this proved impossible due to NASA restrictions designed to prevent the spacecraft from posing any risk to the space station. SpaceX explained the problem in a statement.

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. 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%) of fully completing the second burn. While there was sufficient fuel on board to do so, the liquid oxygen on board was only enough to achieve a roughly 95% likelihood of completing the second burn, so Falcon 9 did not attempt a restart. Although the secondary payload, the Orbcomm satellite, was still deployed to orbit by Falcon 9, it was done so at the lower altitude used by Dragon in order to optimize the safety of the space station mission.

Thus, the OG2 satellite ended up in the wrong orbit and re-entered the atmosphere only days after launch. Despite the failure, ORBCOMM put on a brave face in a statement released late last week.

Notwithstanding the shortened life of the OG2 prototype, the OG2 program engineering teams from ORBCOMM, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing made significant strides in testing various hardware components. After telemetry and command capability was established, several critical system verifications were performed. The solar array and communications payload antenna deployments were successful, along with verifying the performance of various components of both the OG2 satellite bus and the communications payload. The OG2 satellite bus systems including power, attitude control, thermal and data handling were also tested to verify proper operation. The unique communications payload, which incorporates a highly reprogrammable software radio with common hardware for both gateway and subscriber messaging, also functioned as expected.

These verification successes achieved from the single prototype satellite validate that the innovative OG2 satellite technology operates as designed before launching the full constellation of OG2 satellites. With this verification data, ORBCOMM can focus on completing and launching the OG2 satellites as the primary mission payloads on two planned Falcon 9 launches, the first in mid-2013 and the second in 2014, directly into their operational orbit…

“We appreciate the complexity and work that SpaceX put into this launch,” stated Marc Eisenberg, ORBCOMM’s CEO. “SpaceX has been a supportive partner, and we are highly confident in their team and technology.”

In a statement to Space News, SpaceX said ORBCOMM was aware of NASA’s restrictions and the risk of flying as a secondary payload on the mission.

“The goal of this mission was to transport cargo to the international space station for NASA,” SpaceX’s Oct. 11 statement said. “Orbcomm requested that SpaceX carry one of their small satellites (weighing a few hundred pounds, vs. Dragon at over 12,000 pounds) on this flight so that they could gather test data before we launch their full constellation next year.

“The higher the orbit, the more test data they can gather, so they requested that we attempt to restart and raise altitude. NASA agreed to allow that, but only on condition that there be substantial propellant reserves, since the orbit would be close to the space station.

“It is important to appreciate that Orbcomm understood from the beginning that the orbit-raising maneuver was tentative. They accepted that there was a high risk of their satellite remaining at the Dragon insertion orbit. SpaceX would not have agreed to fly their satellite otherwise, since this was not part of the core mission and there was a known, material risk of no altitude raise.”

SpaceX and NASA have formed an investigation board to review what what went wrong with the Falcon 9 engine. ORBCOMM, which will doesn’t have any part of its OG2 constellation in orbit, has filed a claim with its insurance company to recover its loss.