[Satellite News 10-09-12] While SpaceX celebrated its successful launch of the Dragon spacecraft carrying parts to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA, the company detected an anomaly on one of its Falcon 9 first-stage engines approximately one minute and 19 seconds after liftoff. The rocket was subsequently unable to perform the secondary burn needed to place Orbcomm’s prototype OG2 satellite into its intended orbit.
SpaceX released an official statement Oct. 9 and disclosed that its initial data suggested that one of the rocket’s nine Merlin engines lost pressure suddenly and an engine shutdown command was issued. “We know the engine did not explode, because we continued to receive data from it,” the California-based launch services provider said. “Panels designed to relieve pressure within the engine bay were ejected to protect the stage and other engines. Our review of flight data indicates that neither the rocket stage nor any of the other eight engines were negatively affected by this event.”
The OG2 satellite is currently stranded in an elliptical orbit ranging between 200 and 300 miles below its intended 480-mile orbit. Orbcomm said it regained partial control of the satellite and will attempt to raise and circularize the orbit. If successful, Orbcomm should have an opportunity to test out the satellite’s hardware and software before committing to a follow-on launch of eight additional satellites in 2013.
Raymond James Analyst Chris Quilty said that if Orbcomm cannot place the prototype satellite in its proper orbit, then its OG2 launch schedule could get pushed back in order to perform another solo demonstration launch.
“The satellite was fully-insured and wasn’t expected to contribute materially to revenues, so no impact on our estimates,” Quilty told Satellite News. “An extended delay, however, could impact our longer-term forecast, which anticipates higher ARPUs from the OG2 constellation’s new and enhanced services.”
The satellite was insured for $10 million, comparable to the $10.2 million cost to build, launch, and insure an additional satellite. Assuming a full insurance claim, Orbcomm will be able to swap its prototype satellite for a fully operational OG2 satellite from its current production line.
SpaceX noted that the Falcon 9 rocked was designed to shut down two of its engines to limit acceleration – even on a fully nominal flight. “The rocket could therefore have lost another engine and still completed its mission,” the company said. “Falcon 9 did exactly what it was designed to do. Like the Saturn 5, which experienced engine loss on two flights, and modern airliners, Falcon 9 is designed to handle an engine-out situation and still complete its mission. No other rocket currently flying has this ability … We will continue to review all flight data in order to understand the cause of the anomaly, and will devote the resources necessary to identify the problem and apply those lessons to future flights. We will provide additional information as it becomes available.”
Despite the failure, Orbcomm confirmed that it intends to launch the balance of its OG2 satellites on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 that will begin flying early next year. Quilty said the new rocket will feature an improved Merlin 1D engine that will presumably incorporate lessons learned from Sunday’s engine failure.
The Dragon spacecraft continued to function nominally for its NASA CRS-1 mission and SpaceX said all systems are performing as expected. The Dragon spacecraft executed a series of burns Oct. 8 and is currently catching up to the International Space Station.
Dragon is expected to begin its approach to the station on October 10, where it will be grappled and berthed by Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Expedition 33 Commander Sunita Williams of NASA. Over the following weeks, the crew will unload Dragon’s payload and reload it with cargo to be returned to Earth, with splashdown targeted for Oct. 28.