Satellite Crash Emphasizes Work Still To Be Done In Privatized Space Missions
For the second time this year, a commercial space freighter has docked at the International Space Station. The successful arrival of SpaceX’s Dragon cargo vessel is a fresh shot in the arm for privately funded space flight - but there’s a catch.
The mission moved forward at the expense of an Orbcomm communications satellite, which was riding in the “trunk” of the Falcon 9 rocket. An engine failure on the way up meant that the satellite was released in too low an orbit, and some industry experts think the stranded probe has now re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. (Update: Orbcomm has confirmed that the satellite has deorbited.)
The episode provides a salutary lesson for space entrepreneurs hoping to launch small satellites as secondary payloads on Falcon 9 flights.
Emerging commercial space-flight firms such as Planetary Resources, the wannabe asteroid miners, believe such ride shares will be one economic way to deploy their constellations of rock-spotting telescopes and deep-space probes. But as the name suggests, secondary payloads will take a back seat to the primary mission, SpaceX has confirmed. That’s especially so when the main mission involves approaching a crewed spacecraft like the ISS, where safety is paramount.
Privatization has introduced competition in the category of “Space Freight.” Arguably (with apologies to the shuttle program), the entire concept of “Space Freight” didn’t really exist under the NASA monopoly, since the payload was the mission itself. Meanwhile, the democratization of technology (Smartphone powered micro-satellites and the like) has increased demand for access to space.
What we are seeing now is the growing pains of an industry, where each mission serves multiple clients, and in the event of emergency, the operator has to prioritize among its many clients.
Whose insurance pays for the lost satellite, I wonder…
(via Short Sharp Science: SpaceX satellite loss is a warning for ride sharers)