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the solution suggested by Andrei works on my side in gazebo2 on trusty if the <max_contacts>100</max_contacts> is put in the .world config after the physics tag (not in the urdf)

but I looked deeper to understand why the service to set physics properties does not work. I found the reason and this is a problem only before gazebo 3.0. From gazebo_ros the set physics properties service calls the generic PhysicsEngine setMaxContacts which does not in turn call the derived ODEPhysicsEngine setMaxContacts due to a mismatch between the arguments types between the class and its parent class (double vs unsigned int) This fix and the following probably solved the issue in gazebo 3.0 https://bitbucket.org/osrf/gazebo/diff/gazebo/physics/PhysicsEngine.hh?diff2=b15c2c925cb1&at=minor_abi_3.0

recompiling gazebo2.2 from source with the double to unsigned int worked for me, I could set max contacts with the set_physics_properties