Orbcomm Admits Key Maritime Monitoring Satellite Failed in Late 2010

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PARIS — Satellite two-way messaging provider Orbcomm on Feb. 1 said the only satellite in its constellation capable of monitoring maritime traffic had ceased functioning but that the company expects to replace it by this summer.

Acknowledging what industry officials had been saying for several weeks, Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm said its Quick Launch 3 satellite, one of six launched in June 2008 and built by a Russian-German team, had failed in orbit “toward the end of the fourth quarter 2010.” The satellite was the sole remaining in-orbit asset carrying Orbcomm’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, which captures signals from ships and relays the data — including heading, speed, destination and cargo — to coastal authorities.

Orbcomm had been under contract to the U.S. Coast Guard and is making AIS capacity a feature on all 18 of its second-generation satellites, which are scheduled to be launched starting late this year.

These satellites will be launched aboard Falcon 9 rockets operated by Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif.

As part of its settlement with OHB Technology of Bremen, Germany, following the failure of the six satellites launched in June 2008, OHB and its Luxspace affiliate are building two dedicated AIS spacecraft for Orbcomm. These satellites are scheduled for launch starting by June, Orbcomm said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.


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OHB had been prime contractor for Orbcomm’s six Quick Launch satellites, with Polyot of Russia responsible for manufacturing the satellites. Orbcomm collected a $44.3 million insurance claim in December 2009 following the satellites’ in-orbit failure.

In its SEC filing, Orbcomm said its core machine-to-machine messaging service is not affected by the loss of the Quick Launch 3 spacecraft, as the satellite had not been used for this purpose. The company said it expects the failure of the satellite will result in less than $1 million in lost revenue for the first six months of 2011.

Aided by international maritime regulations mandating AIS terminals on large commercial vessels, and by the signal limitations of ground-based transmissions when ships are far from the coast, satellite-based AIS is viewed as an emerging business opportunity.

The European Space Agency has funded AIS gear to be stationed on the international space station, and is weighing a larger program that would include a small fleet of satellites to perform AIS tasks. Com Dev of Canada, using mainly its own resources, has created a subsidiary, called exactEarth, to create a commercial AIS business of its own.

Com Dev and Orbcomm regularly trade jabs over which company’s technology is most capable of digesting information from hundreds of ships, collating it and sending it on to coastal authorities. Both companies also are trying to be first to market with a commercial service.