The upcoming launch of 90 small satellites aboard Spaceflight’s Sherpa tug atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is widely viewed as a pioneering effort to establish a regular and reliable access to space for the smallsat industry.
But for one commercial smallsat operator, machine-to-machine satellite messaging provider Orbcomm, the Sherpa launch is a threat.
Orbcomm has asked U.S. regulators to stop the launch until Spaceflight demonstrates that releasing 90 satellites — most of them without on-board propulsion — into a single elliptical orbital plane overlapping Orbcomm’s constellation does not raise orbital-collision issues.
Orbcomm has been negotiating directly with smallsat operators Planet and Spire Global, both of San Francisco, on a solution. Planet and Spire combined are expected to account for a majority of the 90-satellite payload.
In petitions to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Orbcomm argues that the risk of collision or orbital debris creation posed by the Sherpa mission is too high to allow the flight to occur without a thorough vetting of the issues.
It’s not just the possibility of a collision. Also of concern is that the proximity of the Sherpa satellites to Orbcomm’s operating constellation could result in a snowstorm of “conjunction alerts” by the U.S. Air Force, which tracks orbital debris and satellite flight patterns and alerts operators in advance of close calls.
For Orbcomm, a scenario in which the company receives a constant barrage of conjunction warnings and then must decide — sometimes within an hour — whether to change a satellite’s trajectory is not a good outcome.
This is especially true since few of the Spaceflight customers on the Sherpa mission are able to maneuver their satellites in orbit, putting the onus on Orbcomm to move its satellite or run the risk of a collision.
Satellite operators cite many occasions in which the Air Force has sent out alerts that, on further assessment by the satellite owners, do not warrant collision-avoidance maneuvers. These maneuvers carry the added risk that, by changing a satellite’s course — especially in the low Earth orbit where Orbcomm and the Spaceflight customers expect to operate — Orbcomm may create a new collision risk with a satellite or a piece of debris.
In recent weeks, Orbcomm says it and Planet have crafted an agreement that could serve as a template for an Orbcomm-Spire Global agreement.
That leaves Spaceflight. The company’s success as a launch-service provider for small satellite owners willing to submit to a common schedule to secure affordable launches on large rockets is viewed as important for the smallsat industry, which in the past several years has been the most dynamic niche of the commercial satellite industry. The Sherpa model, industry officials say, is not limited to SpaceX. It could be adapted to United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5, Europe’s Ariane 5 and Russia’s Proton.
But herding multiple owners, many with small operating budgets and limited personnel, onto a single mission is no easy task. How much leverage Spaceflight has to insist on detailed in-orbit performance from all its customers is unclear.
Already the industry has seen how Europe’s Arianespace launch-service provider struggles to accommodate just two customers on a single Ariane 5. Multiply that by a few dozen to see what Spaceflight is confronting.
That may account for what Orbcomm says is Spaceflight’s refusal to discuss the matter. Orbcomm told the FCC that its “ongoing efforts to collaboratively engage with Spaceflight… continue to be rebuffed by Spaceflight.”
Rochelle Park, New Jersey-based Orbcomm recently declined to comment on the issue beyond its FCC pleadings, saying it was “trying to understand the risks.”
Spaceflight President Curt Blake, in a statement, said:
“Because the issue is in front of the FCC currently, it’s not appropriate for us to elaborate other than to say we’re supportive of our mission customers. We are continuing to help the process, as requested, to resolve the situation and hope an acceptable solution is reached soon. We believe the Sherpa mission is groundbreaking and beneficial to the newspace industry as a whole.”
Orbcomm’s second-generation satellites were built by Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) of Sparks, Nevada. It is a showcase contract for SNC. The company’s corporate vice president, Mark Sirangelo, said the system was designed with debris mitigation as a high priority.
“We launched 17 250-kilogram satellites in the past year,” Sirangelo said of the Orbcomm contract. “Every one has the ability to deorbit itself, with a certain amount of fuel that remains and a protocol so that even if we cannot communicate with the satellite, it autonomously takes itself off line, to bring itself down.
“If there is a period of time of non-communication — when the satellite is in an orbit or a motion that is outside of the typical range, or if there are no communications going through the satellite — there are a series of fail-safes that are self-contained within the software.”
Sirangelo conceded that if an Orbcomm satellite was slammed into and its software disabled, “then you can’t do much.”
Eleven Orbcomm Generation 2 second-generation satellites ready for OG2 Mission 2 launch.