SpaceX Blames Helium Leak for Falcon 9 Launch Delay

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BERLIN — The May 9 cancellation of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket static test firing ahead of a planned May 10 launch was caused by a helium leak in an apparently different location from the leak that delayed the April launch of a cargo supply mission.

The launch, of six Orbcomm machine-to-machine messaging satellites, has been rescheduled to June 11, with a backup date of June 12 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin said in a May 20 response to inquiries.

After days of maintaining a silence in which was bred multiple industry rumors, Shanklin on May 20 gave a brief summary of what stopped the test firing on the day before the scheduled launch.

“The issue was a helium leak in a different location that wasn’t present during earlier tests,” Shanklin said. “We are thoroughly reviewing the stage before clearing it for flight, as we want to make sure that no further such issues occur.  We are now targeting June 11th with June 12th as a backup.”

Industry officials said Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has removed the suspect component from the rocket, leaving the rest of the rocket at the spaceport, with tests underway at the company’s Hawthorne, California, production plant.

The Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket is capable of lifting the 6,000-kilogram Dragon cargo delivery and return capsule into low Earth orbit for space station servicing.

The six Orbcomm satellites, each weighing 170 kilograms, will total less than 2,000 kilograms including the payload dispenser and should permit SpaceX to spend the excess fuel on maneuvering the rocket’s first-stage engine into a position to be recovered.

“It is unlikely they will ever get a launch where they have as much extra power and fuel as they will for the first Orbcomm launch,” one industry official said of the six-satellite mission.

Orbcomm’s second and final flight to deploy its second-generation is scheduled for a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch late this year. It will carry 11 satellites that are identical to the six to be launched on the next mission.

Orbcomm has said launching just six satellites is a way to reassure insurance underwriters of the workmanship of the new Orbcomm satellite design. Orbcomm also wants to test the ability of one of the six satellites to maneuver between orbital planes.

Orbcomm had told investors May 8, before the helium leak issue was known, that it expected to complete in-orbit testing of the satellites and their placement in the existing constellation within 60 days of launch, with additional revenue to start almost immediately from filling in a gap in the coverage of the current constellation. Every month’s delay is therefore a month’s delay in revenue.

Recovering, refurbishing and reusing the first-stage engine is one of SpaceX’s priorities. The company said the first stage returned to Earth, positioned itself for a vertical landing, slowed itself down and then touched down at sea as planned. Rough seas prevented recovery of the full stage.

SpaceX has said that for routine recovery of the first stage, an on-ground landing was preferable to a water landing, and may be indispensable to the effort.