Falcon 9 Successfully Launches Six Orbcomm Satellites

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FARNBOROUGH, England — A Space Exploration Technologies Corp. Falcon 9 rocket on July 14 successfully placed six Orbcomm machine-to-machine messaging satellites into low Earth orbit. Following the launch, Orbcomm said all six satellites were healthy in orbit and sending signals.

The launch ended months of mission delays, including a final two-month series starting in early May caused by multiple Falcon 9 issues in addition to the Orbcomm satellites and weather at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, spaceport.

It was the first of two planned Orbcomm launches this year aboard the Falcon 9.

The July 14 launch was also scheduled to test technologies needed to realize SpaceX’s goal of eventually reusing the Falcon 9 first stage to save costs. The company planned to use the launch to test a recovery sequence including reorienting the first stage after separation and deployment of landing legs prior to a splashdown and recovery off the Florida coast.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX did not immediately release information relative to the performance of the first stage in those tests.

Orbcomm Chief Executive Marc Eisenberg said in an email that the six satellites, built by Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado, were sending signals in orbit. Sierra Nevada said July 17 that the spacecraft were communicating with Orbcomm’s gateway Earth stations but that full satellite checkout would continue for several weeks before turning them over to Rochelle Park, New Jersey-based Orbcomm.

The Orbcomm contract represented a breakthrough for Sierra Nevada as a satellite prime contractor, and for the company’s SN-100 satellite platform

The remaining 11 satellites are scheduled for launch, also by a SpaceX Falcon 9, at an undetermined date late this year or early in 2015.

Orbcomm officials have said they expect a revenue boost from the new satellites even before the full second-generation constellation is in place because the first six satellites will fill a gap in Orbcomm’s global coverage and generate new sales.

The newly deployed satellites also are expected to improve Orbcomm’s Automatic Identification Service (AIS) maritime reconnaissance business, which collects signals on ship identity, cargo and heading and sends it to coastal authorities while the vessels are beyond the range of land-based radio towers. All second-generation Orbcomm satellites have AIS receivers. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, built the satellites’ payloads.

Weighing a total of 1,020 kilograms, the six Orbcomm satellites represented an extremely light mission for Falcon 9. SpaceX originally planned to launch Orbcomm’s satellites on small Falcon 1e rockets, but the company ended Falcon 1e operations when it transitioned to Falcon 9. It nonetheless maintained its contractual obligations to customers that had booked Falcon 1e launches, and in a couple of cases the transition of these contracts to Falcon 9 has led to odd contractual results.

Orbcomm is one of these. The company is paying just $43 million for two Falcon 9 launches, an extraordinarily low figure even for SpaceX, which has entered the commercial market as a low-cost operator.

It was partly for this reason that Orbcomm was obliged to stick with SpaceX even as launch delays — some caused by Orbcomm satellites — accumulated.

The launch was SpaceX’s third in 2014. The company has said it plans six more before the end of the year, including three international space station cargo resupply launches for NASA and two commercial missions for AsiaSat of Hong Kong in addition to the final Orbcomm launch.