Orbcomm Eagerly Awaits Launch of New Satellite on Next Falcon 9

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PARIS — Few organizations were more relieved by Space X’s successful May 25 delivery of a cargo capsule to the international space station than mobile machine-to-machine (M2M) satellite services provider Orbcomm Inc.

Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm, which operates a fleet of 27 satellites in low Earth orbit, has been waiting for more than a year for Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) to deliver the first Dragon capsule to the station.

With that now accomplished, Orbcomm says, Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX is now able to focus on delivering Orbcomm’s 18 second-generation satellites into orbit.

Orbcomm now expects that a prototype second-generation Orbcomm spacecraft will be aboard the next SpaceX-owned Falcon 9 rocket, tentatively scheduled to launch a Dragon capsule in September.

The remaining 17 satellites are to be launched on an undetermined number of Falcon 9 missions scheduled to occur by late 2014. Each satellite is expected to weigh about 155 kilograms at launch.

Orbcomm Chief Executive Marc J. Eisenberg said in a May 25 email that the first launch will occur on SpaceX’s next Dragon flight. The following Orbcomm launch is likely to be a dedicated mission with no other passengers, with subsequent launches to be either dedicated missions or launches shared with other Falcon 9 passengers, he said.

The second-generation constellation will propel Orbcomm’s service from one providing M2M messages of a few hundred bytes to the multikilobyte class. It will permit Orbcomm’s subscribers, often owners or transporters of refrigerated and other cargo traveling by rail, ship and truck, to use smaller antennas.

Eisenberg said the second-generation constellation, under construction by Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., with assistance from Boeing Co.’s Argon ST of Fairfax, Va., may also enable certain indoor M2M services.

For a company such as Orbcomm, the arrival of SpaceX on the global commercial launch scene has been a blessing and perhaps even an enabler. Industry officials say that in the past few years, affordable launch options for satellites the size of Orbcomm’s have all but disappeared from the market.

The cost of launches aboard Russian and Ukrainian converted ballistic missiles has increased dramatically, making Orbcomm’s mid-2009 contract with SpaceX — 18 satellites for $46.6 million — look even better today than it did then.

But it also gave Orbcomm little choice but to wait until the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule had proved themselves to SpaceX’s biggest customer, NASA.

A summer 2012 launch of the first Orbcomm prototype satellite would put Orbcomm at least a year behind its originally announced schedule. But the company’s most recent financial results suggest its business and its first-generation satellites — launched between 1997 and 1999 with four-year contractual service lives — are not yet showing much delay-related stress.

Aided by two acquisitions completed in May 2011 and January of this year, Orbcomm reported that revenue of $15.9 million for the three months ending March 31, double the figure for the same period last year.

Service revenue accounted for $11.5 million of the total, up 56 percent from a year earlier. Included in that figure is about $250,000 in revenue from Orbcomm’s rejuvenated Automatic Identification Service (AIS), which uses two small satellites launched in October and January to provide coastal authorities with data on ships that are beyond the reach of terrestrial radars.

Orbcomm’s AIS business was crippled when AIS-equipped satellites built by a Russian manufacturer and launched in 2008 failed in orbit. All of Orbcomm’s second-generation satellites are AIS-enabled.

“Our top AIS customers are now re-engaged,” Eisenberg said in a May 10 conference call with investors.

Orbcomm is competing with Com Dev of Canada to field an operational AIS service and line up customers for it — another reason why Orbcomm wants its second-generation constellation in orbit as soon as possible.

Hardware sales, also aided by Orbcomm’s purchase of StarTrak Systems and PAR Logistics Management Systems (LMS), were up nine-fold, to $4.4 million for the three-month period.

Orbcomm reported that its subscriber count, meaning the number of units in service, was 689,000 as of March 31, an increase of 42,000 from a year earlier, and up 23,000 after subtracting the subscribers that came with the LMS purchase.

The first quarter “was another step in the right direction,” Eisenberg said during the conference call.