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Engineering fault stops SpaceX launch of machine comms satellite network

Orbcomm's space network waits until weekend for lift off

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Elon Musk might have a tight timetable to get humans to Mars, but his SpaceX booster company is behind schedule on its current launch calendar, thanks to an engineering glitch.

With minutes to go before launch at Cape Canaveral, SpaceX's latest Falcon rocket was shut down after engineers spotted pressure fluctuations in the unit's second stage booster. The firm only had an hour-long launch window on Friday because of incoming weather systems and scrubbed the liftoff in favor of a Saturday firing.

Reliability is something SpaceX takes very seriously – for some new customers to the company, it's more important than the price of the launch. Each rocket is test-fired before being raised for launch and its engineers can shut down the Falcon rocket even after the initial ignition because it uses liquid, rather than solid, fuel.

Friday's payload was six OG2 satellites owned by Orbcomm that will form the first upgrade to the US company's dedicated machine-to-machine satellite communications network. The company already has 21 OG1 satellites in orbit, linking ground stations, maritime traffic, and land-based clients via VHF.

The new satellites, each weighing 172 kg (380lb), will be part of a 17-unit grid when the orbital deliveries are completed. The new network should be in place by early next year if all goes according to schedule – fingers crossed.

In the meantime, SpaceX engineers will be trying to work out whether the pressure fluctuations were down to a fault with the rocket itself, or if the sensor packages monitoring it were flawed. If all is well the launch should go off on Saturday, and another is due in July. ®

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