SpaceX, ORBCOMM Rejigger Launch Schedule

Falcon 9 launch. (Credit: Chris Thompson)

ORBCOMM/SpaceX PR — FORT LEE, N.J. & HAWTHORNE, Calif.– ORBCOMM Inc. (Nasdaq: ORBC) and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) today announced the launch schedule for ORBCOMM’s second generation (OG2) satellites. The updated plan includes launching the first OG2 prototype satellite on the first Cargo Re-supply Services (CRS) mission in mid-2012, followed closely by an additional launch of two OG2 satellites into a high inclination orbit as a secondary payload in late 2012. In early 2013, SpaceX plans to launch eight to twelve OG2 satellites, and the remainder of the constellation of 18 OG2 satellites is expected to be launched in 2014. All launches are expected to be on Falcon 9 rockets.

In transitioning the launch of the first OG2 prototype spacecraft to the first CRS mission in lieu of the upcoming Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) mission, and adding the launch of two spacecraft toward the second half of 2012, ORBCOMM is able to field additional spacecraft in 2012 resulting in increased coverage, while spreading the deployment across multiple launches thereby reducing risk. SpaceX will fully verify the mission performance on the COTS mission and focus on the successful berthing of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).

The inclusion of two OG2 satellites as a secondary payload on a high inclination insertion orbit will enable ORBCOMM to significantly improve messaging services in polar latitudes. Additionally, it provides the ability to thoroughly test and verify OG2 satellite performance before the primary launch of eight to twelve OG2 satellites.

“We are excited to put ORBCOMM’s second generation satellites into orbit as scheduled, in the most desirable inclinations with the least amount of risk.” said Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX. “ORBCOMM has been a great partner and we are looking forward to launch.”

“We are pleased that SpaceX has offered ORBCOMM this opportunity to launch two satellites that will help our customers using our OG2 messaging services, and additionally augment service to our maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS) customers that benefit from coverage at higher inclinations,” said Marc Eisenberg CEO of ORBCOMM. “The net outcome of these revised launch plans has us launching OG2 satellites at a faster pace with less risk.”

The parameters of the Falcon 9 launch of eight to twelve OG2 satellites as its primary mission in early 2013 will be optimized to ensure the best coverage for the enhanced OG2 messaging services. ORBCOMM expects several OG2 satellites will be directly inserted into a specific plane to immediately improve messaging services while other satellites will be put into a transfer orbit and drift to their final orbit location. ORBCOMM expects the drifting operation will take several months to occur and that the satellites will be functional and providing messaging services during this period.

Editor’s Note: This seems to be a rather cheery way of announcing a flight delay. My guess is that NASA didn’t approve of the idea of launching ORBCOMM satellites as secondary payloads aboard the COTS 2/3 combined demo set for early February. The space agency likely feels that the mission will be challenging enough without adding any more risk to it.

The press release indicates that SpaceX will launch all the scheduled ORBCOMM satellites by the end of 2014, which was the plan according to this version of SpaceX manifest dated Jan. 4, 2011. This is likely what Musk means when he says SpaceX will be launching the satellites on time.

As you can see, the ORBCOMM satellites were supposed to be launched on the smaller Falcon 1e booster, which SpaceX has put on hold. Thus, the satellites have been shifted to the Falcon 9, which is SpaceX’s only operational booster.

Also, note that “Target Date” is defined as having the vehicle at the launch site, not necessarily launching in that year. So, the NASA COTS Demo 2 and Demo 3 (which have been combined) met the schedule in that the hardware was at Cape Canaveral this year, even though the flight won’t take place until February at the earliest. However, other target dates appear to have slipped.

Looking ahead to the next two years, we find that SpaceX — which didn’t launch anything this year — has set up an ambitious schedule for itself. Below is the current manifest as of Dec. 28, 2011.

The MDA Corp. (Canada) launch has been shifted from Cape Canaveral to Vandenberg. Meanwhile, DragonLab Mission 1, which had been set for arrival Cape Canaveral in 2012 only a year ago, has now slipped to 2014 on the most recent manifest.

We’ll see how well they do. If past is prologue, we will see more of these missions slide to the right on the old schedule.