Good things come to those who wait: SpaceX launches six Orbcomm OG2 satellites on Falcon 9
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla – Good things come to those who wait, that likely was what Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX ) was thinking as their Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket thundered off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) in Florida. Liftoff was delayed from the 9:21 a.m. EDT (1321 GMT) until 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT) for an undisclosed issue. The payload of six Orbcomm OG2 satellites lifted off under mostly clear skies. Today’s flight marked the close of a long saga that saw numerous delays caused by a variety of issues including helium leaks, spacecraft anomalies and second stage woes. After these issues had been resolved SpaceX’s launch team ran into a two week period of maintenance that needed to be completed by the U.S. Air Force’s Eastern Range – forcing the launch to slip to today, Monday, July 14.
In terms of the payload, this morning’s launch marked the first in a planned series of three flights that will ferry some 17 Orbcomm OG2 satellites out of the atmosphere and into the black.
These spacecraft are produced by a group of aerospace firms with Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC ) being the prime contractor. SNC won the contract in 2008 to build 18 of the satellites. Each of these spacecraft weighs in at about 312 lbs (142 kilograms), has a planned lifespan of some five years and can generate up to 400 watts of power. Boeing subsidiary, Argon ST, was tapped to give these satellites greater capabilities in terms to what services they could provide with estimates ranging as much as 10 times more than what the first generation of these spacecraft could do.
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 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. At present, SpaceX has no fewer than five additional Falcon 9 launches planned for 2014 to send commercial satellites aloft for AsiaSat as well as cargo resupply missions to the space station on behalf of NASA. SpaceFlight Insider spoke with SpaceX representatives who confirmed that another Orbcomm mission was possible for 2014.
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 to orbit – 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.”
Except for the almost two-hour delay, this morning’s launch followed the normal countdown procedures associated with the Falcon 9. About four hours before launch SpaceX began refueling the launch vehicle with liquid oxygen and RP-1 (a highly-refined form of kerosene). Gaseous oxygen is vented throughout the countdown procedure forcing the replenishment of liquid oxygen.
Ten minutes prior to launch, terminal countdown started and the computers took control of launch operations. The U.S. Air Force Range Safety Officer along with SpaceX’s launch director reviewed the status of the launch vehicle and cleared it for flight some two-and-a-half minutes prior to liftoff.
Right before launch the sound suppression system, dubbed “Niagara” by SpaceX was activated, preventing damage to the launch vehicle and the payload ensconced in its payload fairing.
Two seconds before launch time, the nine Merlin 1D engines, arranged in the “Octaweb” pattern, were ignited, unleashing a total of some 1.3 million lbs of thrust. The rocket however stayed put, held in place until the rocket’s flight computers verified that all systems were behaving as advertised. Once it had confirmed that this was in fact the case, the Falcon 9 v1.1 was allowed to start its mission.
About a minute-and-a-half into the flight the Falcon 9 launch vehicle passed through the region of the atmosphere known as maximum dynamic pressure or “max-q.” This is where the velocity of the launch vehicle as well as the pressure outside of the vehicle actually conspire, placing the rocket and its payload under the greatest amount of stress during ascent. Just 158 seconds into the flight and main-engine cutoff or “MECO” occurred with the first and second stages parting ways approximately three seconds later. For most launch vehicles, this would spell the end of the stage’s usefulness. All other rocket first stages plunge back to the Earth and conduct controlled impacts either on land or in the ocean.
This was not the case for the prior Falcon 9 and this one. Both conducted “soft landings” in the Atlantic Ocean. These are the first steps that SpaceX hopes will lead to a first stage which will fly back to the launch site and land, thus making the first stage reusable. This is the primary reason that access to orbit is as expensive as it is. SpaceX is attempting to convert the Falcon 9 into the world’s first reusable launch vehicle. The company is testing out these systems at its facilities located in McGregor, Texas with a test article of the Falcon 9 Reusable or “F9R” as well as on actual missions that the company carries out on behalf of its customers. SpaceX conducted the first such test of this system during the Commercial Resupply Services 3 (CRS-3) flight to the International Space Station last April.
As reported by Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson, today’s attempt to recover the first stage was not successful. With, as SpaceX CEO and Founder put it, the attempt ending in a “Kaboom.” Meaning that none of the first stage was able to be recovered from its landing site in the Atlantic Ocean.
Some eight seconds after the first stage was set on its separate journey, the single Merlin 1D engine in the booster’s upper stage fired to life, conducting a burn which lasted about six minutes and 46 seconds. Shortly thereafter, its mission of shielding the six Orbcomm satellites through Earth’s atmosphere complete, the payload fairing was pneumatically separated. Now jettisoned, the fairing’s two segments fell back toward Earth.
About 15 minutes into the flight and the six satellites were placed into orbit.
This morning’s launch marked the 10th flight of the Falcon 9 rocket overall, the 5th for the v1.1 iteration of the Falcon 9 and the 5th launch that the company has launched within the past year. SpaceX had originally slated the Orbcomm OG2 mission to take place last year. The F9 v1.1 has nine Merlin 1D engines, arranged in the “Octaweb” pattern, stretched fuel tanks and other upgrades from the original version of the launch vehicle.
On Friday, June 20 weather was the initial concern that there might be a scrub, but another issue, one involving a decrease in pressure in the rocket’s upper stage occurred and stymied attempts to get the rocket off of the launch pad.
SpaceX has encountered a series of issues which has seen the launch date slip from late last year (two launch dates were issued by the Hawthorne, California-based firm – one in September and another in November). This year SpaceX has had no fewer than seven launch dates slated for Orbcomm OG2. Not all of the delays related to the Falcon 9 launch vehicle itself however, with anomalous readings with one of the satellites forcing Orbcomm to request delays.
SpaceX however opted to press on and carried out the static-test fire of the Falcon 9 on June 13. Moreover, SpaceX continued to work the issue encountered which caused the June 20 scrub and went in for a second try that evening.
This morning’s launch added another “notch” to the Falcon 9’s string of successes. In fact, the Falcon 9 has only encountered one notable failure in its history.
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.
The next launch that SpaceX has on its manifest is the Asiasat 8 spacecraft, a communications satellite that will provide direct-to-home (DTH) broadcasting, private networks as well as broadband connectivity China, India and Southeast Asia.
Video courtesy of SpaceX
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.