PARIS — The latest delay in the launch schedule of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket to early July will deprive customer Orbcomm of at least some of the revenue it had told investors would arrive soon after the six Falcon-launched satellites entered service.
Rochelle Park, New Jersey-based Orbcomm, which sells satellite- and terrestrial-wireless-based machine-to-machine messaging services, has seen its planned launch schedule buffeted by a series of apparently unrelated launch cancellations as Hawthorne, California-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. deals with various rocket issues.
The latest issue, which canceled the planned June 23 launch, is related to a suspected anomaly on the rocket’s thrust-vector control system, which orients the first-stage engine nozzles to keep the rocket on trajectory as it traverses the atmosphere.
SpaceX spokesman John Taylor declined to comment on the issue, but said the vehicle has been removed from the launch pad and returned to its integration building to permit SpaceX personnel to resolve the issue.
SpaceX’s June 23 statement about the delay, which followed earlier issues including a helium leak and Orbcomm’s need to verify the health of one of its six satellite passengers, reads:
“SpaceX is taking a closer look at a potential issue identified while conducting pre-flight checkouts during yesterday’s countdown. SpaceX will stand down Tuesday while our engineering teams evaluate further, which will also allow the range to move forward with previously scheduled maintenance. We are currently targeting the first week of July and will work with the range to confirm the next available launch opportunities.”
SpaceX has conducted two launches so far this year. As of mid-June, when it was still counting on a June 20 Orbcomm flight, the company said it was confident of being able to launch seven more times by the end of the year, including the Orbcomm flight. SpaceX’s 2014 manifest includes three NASA missions to supply cargo to the international space station, which NASA has scheduled for August, September and December.
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SpaceX’s low prices have lured multiple commercial customers, including operators of midsize telecommunications satellites that operate from geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator and are launched one at a time on Falcon 9.
Whether SpaceX can maintain its plans for nine total launches this year is unclear and will depend on how quickly the latest issue is resolved. One of its customers, AsiaSat of Hong Kong, has already shipped its satellite, called AsiaSat 8, to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, in anticipation of a mid-June Orbcomm launch.
AsiaSat is next on the SpaceX manifest, with AsiaSat 8 to be followed by AsiaSat 6. Both satellites were to have been launched between March and May of this year under contracts signed in mid-2012. AsiaSat had booked a launch reservation with SpaceX competitor International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, for one of the satellites as a hedge against possible SpaceX Falcon 9 delays. But ILS, which markets Russia’s Proton heavy-lift rocket, has been grounded since a May Proton failure that destroyed a Russian satellite.
It is unclear when ILS launches will resume.
As an example of the kind of launch prices SpaceX is offering compared to its competition, AsiaSat said it paid $52.2 million each for its Falcon 9 launches of AsiaSat 8 and AsiaSat 6. AsiaSat’s ILS reservation for one of these satellites included a launch price of $107 million.
Commercial satellite fleet operators have said that with a price differential so large — more than 50 percent in this case — they can absorb the cost of even lengthy SpaceX delays without much trouble.
In Orbcomm’s case, the launch of 17 second-generation Orbcomm satellites, each weighing about 170 kilograms, was negotiated at a time when SpaceX was operating its smaller Falcon 1e rocket. The launches were then transferred to Falcon 9, and ultimately the decision was made to launch six on one Falcon 9, and the remaining 11 satellites on a second rocket scheduled for launch this year.
Orbcomm satellites are designed to operate from a 750-kilometer orbit. Orbcomm is paying about $43 million in total for the two launches of 17 satellites — a price industry officials have said would be impossible to replicate with any other commercially available rocket.
Orbcomm Chief Executive Marc Eisenberg said he remains hopeful that SpaceX will have the latest issues resolved in time for a launch in the first week of July. In a June 23 email, he said the two-month delay will not have a serious effect on the company’s revenue, and that most Orbcomm investors view Orbcomm as a growth stock over the longer term and are not concerned with quarterly ups and downs.