SpaceX Lands Orbcomm 18-Satellite Launch Deal

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WASHINGTON — Satellite messaging service provider Orbcomm of Fort Lee, N.J., has selected Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) to launch 18 second-generation Orbcomm satellites starting as early as the fourth quarter of 2010, the companies announced Sept. 3.

The launches, to be completed by 2014, will utilize SpaceX’s Falcon 1e rocket, an enhanced version of the Hawthorn, Calif.-based company’s Falcon 1 rocket that recently launched Malaysia’s RazakSat into orbit in its fifth flight since its unsuccessful 2006 debut. The Falcon 1 failed in its first three missions before successfully carrying a dummy payload to orbit in September 2008 during its fourth attempt.

Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., is building the 18 satellites under a $130 million contract that includes options to build up to 30 more. The company has said the second-generation satellites weigh about 130 kilograms each, and that the nominal launch configuration would be to place three satellites on a single rocket.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed, though Orbcomm said in a Sept. 3 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission it would be paying a total of $46.6 million to SpaceX for the launches “subject to certain adjustments.” That corresponds to $7.7 million per launch assuming the three-satellites-per-launch scenario.

SpaceX spokeswoman Cassie Kloberdanz declined to comment on the number of Orbcomm satellites the Falcon 1e will carry in a single mission, saying only that “SpaceX will launch as many rockets as it takes to put the 18 satellites in orbit.”

Kloberdanz also would not say whether the first Orbcomm launch would be the maiden flight for the Falcon 1e.

Orbcomm said its contract with SpaceX includes an option for a reflight at no additional charge in the event of a launch failure.

At this time, the only SpaceX facility capable of launching the Falcon 1, and potentially the Falcon 1e, is at the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Defense Test Site on Omelek Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, about 4,000 kilometers southwest of Hawaii.

Orbcomm’s second-generation satellites will provide enhanced data and messaging services including machine-to-machine communications worldwide. In addition, the satellites will also incorporate Automatic Identification System (AIS) features for global maritime detection from space. In addition to its original constellation, Orbcomm is flying six AIS-enabled satellites that were launched last year by a Russian Cosmos-3M carrier rocket at the Kapustin Yar launch site in Russia. Orbcomm has since lost contact with two of those six satellites, and is working to regain contact with a third.