SpaceX Payload Satellite Lost
October 13, 2012

Lost Orbcomm Satellite Burns Up In The Atmosphere

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe Online

News out of Cape Canaveral, FL has many in the burgeoning private space industry disheartened. In what was to be a coup for this new incarnation of the American space program, SpaceX, a private firm started and run by Elon Musk, one of the co-founders of PayPal, sent up one of Space Exploration Technologies´ Falcon 9 rockets with an experimental communications satellite flying piggyback. This is the same SpaceX mission that was responsible for sending a provisioning payload to the International Space Station.

Unfortunately, the Falcon 9´s payload fell out of orbit and burned up in the atmosphere as a result of difficulties encountered during liftoff.

The OG2 satellite was a prototype for a new 17-member communications satellite network that was scheduled to be completed through additional Falcon 9 launches. The expected completion date for the network was to be 2014. Yesterday´s news puts that timeline in jeopardy.

Orbcomm, based in New Jersey, declared the satellite a total loss and has already filed claims with their insurance providers under the policy they had obtained for the launch. Their policy is valued at $10 million, “which would largely offset the expected cost of the OG2 prototype and associated launch services and launch insurance,” the company said in a statement.

The OG2 was intended to orbit at an altitude of 466 miles above Earth. When one of the Falcon 9´s nine Merlin engines shut down early following launch on October 7, they fell well short of that mark.

While the Falcon 9 had eight remaining engines to make up the lost power, the rocket successfully completed its primary mission, sending a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station. This flight, the first of 12 for NASA, falls under a 1.6 billion contract with SpaceX.

Per the agreement between NASA and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX as the privately-held California-based company is known, the primary mission and focus must be the security of the ISS. Once the initial malfunction occurred, NASA and SpaceX vetoed the restarting of the rocket´s second stage, which was needed in order to deliver Orbcomm´s satellite to its proper orbit. The protocol for the veto associated with an engine restart is based on whether or not there is at least a 99 percent chance that the rocket will have enough fuel to complete the burn, according to SpaceX spokeswoman Katherine Nelson.

The engine shutdown caused the Falcon 9 to use slightly more fuel and oxygen to reach Dragon´s intended 202 mile high orbit. From there, Dragon was able to fly itself to the ISS orbit approximately 250 miles above Earth. Dragon reached and docked with the ISS, a 15 nation venture with an estimated value of $100 billion, on Wednesday

It was known that Falcon 9 had enough kerosene fuel onboard to relight the engine. The amount of liquid oxygen, however, “was only enough to achieve a roughly 95 percent likelihood of completing the second burn, so Falcon 9 did not attempt a restart,” Nelson wrote in an email to Reuters.

"Orbcomm understood from the beginning that the orbit-raising maneuver was tentative," Nelson wrote. "They accepted that there was a high risk of their satellite remaining at the Dragon insertion orbit. SpaceX would not have agreed to fly their satellite otherwise, since this was not part of the core mission and there was a known, material risk of no altitude raise."

While Orbcomm was disappointed at the loss of their OG2 prototype satellite, they displayed optimism in declaring that several key objectives of the test flight, including deploying the spacecraft´s solar array and its communications antenna, were a success. Several of the systems of the spacecraft, such as power, flight control, thermal and data management were also tested.

"Had Orbcomm been the primary payload on this mission ... we believe the OG2 prototype would have reached the desired orbit," Orbcomm said.

Orbcomm and SpaceX are in partnership for the delivery of eight additional satellite launches in 2013 and 9 in 2014.

The Dragon payload, on the other hand, was approximately 75 percent offloaded onto the ISS by Friday. In all, 882 pounds of cargo were successfully flown up to the ISS. And the most precious delivery in the payload?  Ice cream.

"We don't usually have this type of stuff up here," station commander Sunita Williams said during an in-flight interview. "It's usually thermostabilized or dehydrated (food), so homemade ice cream is something special. We're going to have a little party."

Among the Dragon's cargo was a freezer that will be used to store scientific samples. For the ride up, SpaceX stashed chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream inside.