Iridium Communications has announced that it has contracted with SpaceX for an eighth Falcon 9 launch. Along for the ride are the twin-satellites of the NASA/GFZ Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, which will be deployed into a separate low-Earth orbit, marking the first rideshare deal for Iridium.
An agreement of this kind is economical for all parties, and affords Iridium the ability to launch five additional satellites for its next-gen global satellite network. The rideshare is anticipated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by early 2018.
“This is a very smart way to get additional Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit,” said Matt Desch, Chief Executive Officer, Iridium. “This launch provides added resiliency to our network for not much more than we had planned originally to launch 72 satellites, including two with Kosmotras.” Desch continued: “We are pleased to be sharing a rocket with NASA and GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences for this additional SpaceX launch, and GFZ has been a great business partner throughout this process.”
Not only is this launch a rare opportunity to ride with NASA, but it also represents a particularly compelling economical solution. The Company had always expected to launch additional satellites after the Iridium NEXT construction was completed to utilise the nine ground spares built into the program. This rideshare represents material savings from other supplemental launch options due to the efficiency of sharing the rocket with GRACE-FO, and the incremental cost during the Iridium NEXT construction period is immaterial when considering the avoidance of unspent amounts contemplated under the Kosmotras program.
It also affords Iridium the opportunity to rearrange its launch and satellite drifting plan and launch these five satellites directly into their operational orbital plane while increasing the number of planned in-orbit spares by three satellites. Further, this development allows Iridium to complete the whole operational constellation at a faster rate than it would have with seven launches. Iridium will still consider launching satellites with Kosmotras once approvals are available.
Iridium NEXT is the company’s next-gen global satellite constellation. Replacing Iridium’s existing network of low-Earth orbit satellites, Iridium NEXT is poised to re-energise the mobile satellite industry with faster speeds and higher throughputs for all industry verticals. The company claims that the launch of the Iridium NEXT constellation represents an unprecedented feat for satellite communications, and has been coined the largest 'tech refresh' of its kind.
The company has contracted with SpaceX for seven dedicated Iridium NEXT launches, deploying 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-Earth orbit, across a 13 month period out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. This eighth launch will increase the constellation’s count to 75 total in-orbit satellites, nine of which will serve as on-orbit spares. The first set of Iridium NEXT satellites was successfully launched on January 14th and is currently under test in orbit.