SpaceX's return to flight removes Iridium's Sword of Damocles
January 16, 2017
PARIS — The successful Jan. 14 launchof SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket captured the headlines as one of the world’s principal commercial launch-service providers returned to business after a Sept. 1 on-pad failure — and successfully returned the Falcon 9 first stage to an offshore barge to boot.
But perhaps the higher drama was that, for this launch, SpaceX was carrying a customer whose business was hanging in the balance.
Mobile satellite service provider Iridium Communications’ aging first-generation constellation has been kept viable an unheralded team from Iridium and Boeing operating from Leesburg, Virginia, that has kept the low-Earth-orbit constellation operational years after the satellites’ “sell-by” date.
Satellites this old can fail at any time and some of the Iridium craft already have. Holes have developed in the coverage, although nothing to cripple the business.
Ten new satellites and a lot more breathing room
Adding 10 Iridium Next satellites will go a long way toward removing the sword of Damocles that has been hanging over Iridium’s head for a long while.
“It’s kind of hard to worry about [first-generation] failures anymore,” Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said in a Jan. 15 interview. “Now that the reinforcements have arrived, I think we’ve retired that risk to Iridium.”
Desch said the 10 satellites launched on Jan. 14 will be sent into Iridium’s plane 6. Eight will stay there; the two others will be drifted over to Plane 5.
That will fill the most glaring hole in Iridium’s coverage. “For our next launch, in April, we’ll launch into Plane 3 — that’s the other hole,” Desch said. “Every launch provides resilience and redundancy to the existing network.”
Iridium booked seven 10-satellite launches with SpaceX. The current schedule is to give Iridium Next prime contractor Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy about three months to check out the satellites’ performance before returning to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, in April for a second group of 10 spacecraft to launch with SpaceX.
Hosted payloads Aireon, exactEarth awaiting full constellation
The 860-kilogram Iridium Next satellites are carrying several hosted payloads for companies that would prefer to be in service sooner rather than later. These include the Aireon commercial aircraft tracking service, in which Iridium is a major shareholder; and the exactEarth maritime ship-monitoring service.
In addition, the Iridium Next constellation offers customers faster delivery of more data, as would be expected when replacing a 20-year-old first-generation technology.
Nonetheless, the exact timing of the coming launches is a lot less of an issue now that the first is successfully done. Thales Alenia Space reported that all 10 satellites were healthy in orbit and sending signals.
SpaceX has an aggressive launch schedule for 2017, with 20-plus launches planned including five more for Iridium at 60-day intervals starting in April.
Schedule assurance at Vandenberg, far from SpaceX’s crowded Cape
Whether the company will reach its long-planned rhythm of launching every two weeks from Vandenberg and Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station is uncertain. But Desch said the fact that SpaceX’s backlog is mainly for launches from the Cape makes it more likely that Iridium will be served even if operations at the Cape are slow in ramping up.
“The way I look at it, even if they only get 10 launches off I think I have a good shot at getting my five” because of the less-crowded manifest at Vandenberg, Desch said. “We have 20 or more satellites in the factory and ready — enough for two launches. We are really only gated now by the rockets.”
With the sense of urgency now much reduced, Iridium can turn its attention to whether the 60-day periods between the second and seven launch might be reduced.
“Even with all the activities that they [Thales Alenia Space] have to do, there is some margin” in the schedule, Desch said. “There is no formal agreement on this but it’s possible that launches three and four could occur with less than 60 days’ spacing, say around 45 days. So we could use the margin wither to accelerate the deployment schedule or to catch up if there is a delay, so that we can make that first-half-2018 completion date.”
Peter B. de Selding