Iridium subcontracts ride share aboard SpaceX Falcon 9

Iridium Next Satellite. Credit: Iridium

Iridium Next Satellite. Credit: Iridium

PARIS — Mobile satellite services provider Iridium Communications has found a ride share customer for the extra SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket it purchased on the heels of its seven-launch, 70-satellite launch services contract with SpaceX.

The two U.S.-German GRACE-Follow-On gravity-field-mapping satellites are contracted to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 in late 2017 or early 2018, according to industry officials and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ), an affiliate of the German Aerospace Center, DLR.

GFZ said the two GRACE-FO satellites, built as a cooperative effort with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will ride into low Earth orbit alongside five Iridium Next spacecraft.

GFZ contracted with McLean, Virginia-based Iridium for the launch, which Iridium had procured earlier from SpaceX earlier.

Early-2018 launch looks challenging

The launch schedule appears particularly aggressive given the current SpaceX and Iridium Next schedules.

Iridium has booked seven Falcon 9 launches, each carrying 10 Iridium Next satellites, starting in January. 

To give Iridium and its insurance underwriters time to evaluate the new Thales Alenia Space/Orbital ATK-built satellites, Iridium has agreed to wait three months before proceeding with a second flight. Once the go-head for the second launch has been given, Iridium is counting on SpaceX to launch at 60-day intervals for the remaining six flights.

Under that schedule, Iridium launches would occur in January, April, June, August, October and December 2017, with the final 10-satellite campaign in February 2018. This is an optimistic scenario and assumes a high SpaceX launch rate in 2017. For Iridium, GRACE-FO presumably 

Iridium’s satellites are launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and in that sense are not directly competing with other SpaceX missions conducted from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. 

Given the pressure on Iridium to field its second generation, it’s unlikely Iridium would be willing to allow the five-satellite launch with GRACE-FO to slow deployment of the 70-satellite constellation. Iridium’s first-generation satellites are long past their planned retirement dates. 

The constellation has been maintained despite satellite outages by deft flight management by the Iridium/Boeing team located in Leesburg, Virginia.

Iridium declined to comment on GRACE-FO, but an industry official confirmed that the deal had been signed. 

Iridium originally had scheduled the launch of the two first Iridium Next satellites aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, only to see Dnepr’s operator, Kosmotras of Moscow, succumb to political issues in Russia and between Russia and Ukraine.

It is unclear whether Kosmotras, which had been a much-needed alternative for owners of small satellites, will ever return to regular business.

 

Peter B. de Selding