Recovery Prospects Unclear for Orbcomm Craft Launched by Falcon 9

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PARIS — Satellite messaging service provider Orbcomm on Oct. 8 said its prototype second-generation satellite was placed in the wrong orbit by a Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) Falcon 9 rocket launched Oct. 7 and that it is unclear whether the spacecraft can be recovered and put into operation.

Fort Lee, N.J.-based Orbcomm said it is working with satellite builder Sierra Nevada Corp. to determine whether the spacecraft has sufficient fuel to make an orbit-raising attempt worthwhile.

In a statement, Orbcomm said the bad orbit was a direct result of the fact that one of the nine Falcon 9 first-stage engines lost pressure and was shut down during liftoff, forcing the rocket to adjust its trajectory.

The Falcon 9 was able to complete its main mission — putting the SpaceX Dragon cargo carrier into an orbit to be captured by astronauts on the international space station — despite the engine shutdown. Dragon is expected to begin an approach to the station Oct. 10.

But the first-stage issue prevented Falcon 9 from performing an additional ignition sequence later in its flight that would have enabled the Orbcomm satellite to be released into the intended orbit. Performing a second burn following the first-stage engine shutdown would have put the flight out of the “safety gate” set by NASA and the international space station partners for the approaching the orbiting laboratory, Orbcomm said.

Orbcomm operates a global machine-to-machine messaging service using a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit. Its second-generation constellation is designed to provide faster and higher-volume messaging, and also to provide a global Automatic Identification Service on maritime traffic.

Orbcomm is relying on Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX to launch all its second-generation satellites. Eight Orbcomm satellites are scheduled for launch aboard a Falcon 9 in mid-2013, with another 10 satellites scheduled for a 2014 Falcon 9 launch.

Orbcomm said it will be the prime customer for both of these Falcon 9 missions.

SpaceX issued a statement Oct. 8 on the first-stage engine anomaly that described what happened but did not mention the Orbcomm satellite.

“We know the engine did not explode because we continued to receive data from it,” SpaceX said of the shutdown of one of the nine Merlin engines of the first stage. “Our review indicates that the fairing that protects the engine from aerodynamic loads ruptured due to the engine pressure release, and that none of Falcon 9’s other eight engines were impacted by this event.

“As designed, the flight computer then recomputed a new ascent profile in real time to assure Dragon’s entry into orbit for subsequent rendezvous and berthing with” the space station, the SpaceX statement said.