Spaceflight Insider

Orbcomm OG2 poised for launch atop Falcon 9 v1.1

SpaceX successfully carried out a static test fire of the company's Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket on June 13, 2014. Photo Credit: SpaceX (archive)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla –It has been a long road to the launch pad for the six Orbcomm OG2 spacecraft which are now poised for liftoff. However, it looks like tomorrow might finally be the day. After no fewer than eight slips, launch is now set for June 20, at 6:08 p.m. EDT (2208 GMT). The launch site is Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida the booster will be Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket. If the launch cannot be carried out on Friday, Orbcomm has listed a backup launch date of Saturday, June 21.

The six Orbcomm satellites were constructed by a small group of aerospace firms which include the satellites’ prime contractor, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing subsidiary Argon ST. The spacecraft are slated to provide two-way messaging services for clients across the globe.

This mission has been on SpaceX’s launch manifest for some time with no fewer than two launch dates scheduled in 2013 and six additional ones in 2014. However, launching payloads to orbit is a tricky business, one which requires an array of requirements to be within predetermined parameters to allow launch to take place. The rocket itself, the payload, range and weather all must collaborate to allow liftoff to occur.

An Orbcomm OG2 satellite. Photo Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

An Orbcomm OG2 satellite. Photo Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

At present, since the first flight of the Falcon 9 in 2010, SpaceX has been able to launch nine times. Each of these launches, with just one exception, was a complete success. Interestingly, the one failure SpaceX encountered – was also tied to Orbcomm.

During the second operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the International Space Station that SpaceX carried out on behalf of NASA, one of the Falcon 9’s Merlin engines failed some 79 seconds into the flight. While the primary payload, the Dragon spacecraft bound for the orbiting laboratory was successfully delivered. The secondary payload of the Orbcomm satellite – was placed into a useless orbit, one of some 200 miles (322 kilometers) and, lacking the propellant needed to boost it to the required altitude of some 466 miles  (750 kilometers), burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere a few days later.

While the spacecraft was listed as a complete loss, Orbcomm did manage to validate a subset of the satellite’s systems to be tested under actual flight conditions.

Tomorrow's launch will be the fifth uprated v1.1 Falcon 9 to be launched. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Tomorrow’s launch will be the fifth uprated v1.1 Falcon 9 to be launched. Photo Credit: SpaceX

If all goes according to plan tomorrow, SpaceX will deliver the first six of a planned constellation of some 17 second-generation Orbcomm OG2 satellites to orbit. These spacecraft are built by several aerospace firms with Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation being the prime contractor, having won the contract in 2008 to build 18 of the communications satellites with an option to produce 30 more. Each of these satellites has a mass of some 312 lbs (142 kilograms) and is expected to last some five years. The satellites each have a power capacity of some 400 watts.

Boeing subsidiary, Argon ST, was tapped to give these satellites greater capabilities in terms to what they could provide customers, estimates range as much as 10 times more than the first generation of these spacecraft.

The Orbcomm OG2 fleet is a part of a planned $230 million expansion program. The 17 satellites will provide “machine-to-machine” or “M2M” two way data communications services to points across the globe. These satellites are planned to, at first, supplement and then eventually replace the aging Orbcomm OG1 fleet already on orbit. Initially, it had been planned to launch the OG2 fleet in three waves, starting in 2010 and carrying through until 2014. The OG2 constellation had originally been planned for launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 1E system.

However, SpaceX is not the type of organization to remain stagnant, it has moved on to the Falcon 9 and now Falcon 9 v1.1 launch vehicles. Point of fact, SpaceX has no fewer than five additional Falcon 9 launches planned for 2014 to send commercial satellites aloft for AsiaSat as well as resupply missions to the space station. Although some outlets have stated that SpaceX is planning additional Orbcomm flights for this year – no evidence can be found to support these claims.

SpaceX uses a pneumatic system to separate the two halves of its payload fairing. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX uses a pneumatic system to separate the two halves of its payload fairing. Photo Credit: SpaceX

For their part, Orbcomm has shown a willingness to employ an array of launch vehicles to deliver their payloads to their destinations. Arianespace’s Ariane 4, Orbital’s air-launched Pegasus booster, ground-launched Taurus and Russian Kosmos-3M booster have all been tapped to send Orbcomm satellites on their way. All total? Some 45 Orbcomm spacecraft have been sent into the black – with the first being launched in July of 1991 aboard an Ariane 4.

“This contract highlights the strong competence and resources of our OG2 team to design, produce and deliver ORBCOMM’s OG2 satellite constellation,” said SNC’s Chief Executive Officer Fatih Ozmen. “I see this as the start of a long and productive relationship with ORBCOMM, where SNC can also work closely with ORBCOMM in growing its government business through many of our traditional government customers.”

As noted, there have been a number of delays in getting this mission underway. On May 8, during one of the prior launch attempts, SpaceX was conducting the normal static-fire test when a helium leak was discovered. The slips on June 11, 12 and 15 were due to issues with the Orbcomm spacecraft themselves. Technicians with Orbcomm wanted additional time to review some of the readings that were detected in one of the six spacecraft. Despite the payload issues, SpaceX opted to press on with the static-fire test, successfully carrying that out on June 13.

If everything goes according to plan on Friday, the following is what viewers can expect to see prior to and following launch:

Just shy of four hours prior to liftoff the Falcon 9 booster will begin being filled with its liquid oxygen (which is loaded first) and RP-1 (a highly refined version of kerosene) fuel. The gaseous oxygen is vented throughout the countdown, which requires the liquid oxygen portion to be continuously added throughout the lead up to launch.

Falcon 9 booster cores. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 booster cores. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Some 10 minutes before the rocket takes to the skies, terminal countdown begins. At this point in the procedure the computers take over launch operations. SpaceX’s launch director should clear the Falcon 9 for launch two minutes and 30 seconds prior to liftoff. The U.S. Air Force Range Safety Officer will also clear the range for launch around this time.

Just prior to being unleashed, SpaceX’s “Niagara” acoustic suppression system will be activated. This system prevents the incredibly destructive sound generated by the Falcon 9 from harming either the rocket or its precious cargo.

SpaceX has stated it will continue the testing of its first stage recovery system on this launch. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has stated it will continue the testing of its first stage recovery system on this launch. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Just two seconds prior to liftoff the rocket’s nine Merlin 1D engines, arranged in the “Octaweb” formation are activated. If the computers sense that all systems are functioning optimally – then the launch vehicle will be released and will use the 1.3 million pounds of thrust they are capable of delivering to send the rocket on the first leg of its journey into the black. If not, the computer will order a shut down. In fact, this has occurred several times in the past and is one of the reasons why the Falcon 9 has encountered no major failures in its history. Contrary to some claims, this type of system can trace its lineage in the U.S. as far back as Project Gemini – which took place in the mid-1960s.

After liftoff, the next major milestone will be the region known as maximum dynamic pressure or “max-q.” At about a minute or so into the flight, the rocket’s velocity when coupled with the pressure of the atmosphere outside conspire to place the Falcon 9 under the greatest amount of stress.

Just two seconds short of two minutes into the flight, MECO or “Main Engine Cutoff” takes place and the first stage’s engines are shut down. Three seconds later and the first and second stages should separate.

For all other launch vehicles, this would normally spell the first stage’s demise with the stage dropping into the Atlantic Ocean far below. However, in this case, SpaceX will attempt to conduct another “soft landing” on the Atlantic and retrieve the first stage. SpaceX made a first attempt during the CRS-3 launch this past April. According to the Hawthorne, California-based company, the first stage was severely damaged by rough seas and little was able to be salvaged. While both NASA and Blue Origin have conducted soft landings in the past, these were test articles. No other organization has accomplished this feat on an actual flight.

SpaceX has approximately 58 minutes in which to get the Falcon 9 v1.1 and its payload of six Orbcomm OG2 satellites off the ground. Photo Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX has approximately 58 minutes in which to get the Falcon 9 v1.1 and its payload of six Orbcomm OG2 satellites off the ground. Photo Credit: SpaceX

Eight seconds after stage separation, the second stage’s lone Merlin 1D will activate and carry out a burn which will last for six minutes and 46 seconds. The payload fairing, which had shielded the Orbcomm satellites through Earth’s atmosphere will be jettisoned and will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

After the second stage shuts down the six Orbcomm spacecraft will be deployed. All total, 15 minutes will have elapsed since lift off took place.

SpaceX will have some 58 minutes in the launch window to get the F9 and its payload off of the pad and into the skies. SpaceFlight Insider will be at Cape Canaveral providing live coverage of the launch stay tuned to our Live Mission Monitor for updates (it can be viewed via the link on our Countdown Clock). SpaceFlight Insider is one of only two media outlets that offer actual live coverage from the launch site.

 

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Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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