Bertrand Maureau, head of the telecommunications division of satellite builder Thales Alenia Space, said in-orbit tests of the first 10 Iridium Next satellites, launched Jan. 14 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, have gone smoothly and are expected to be completed in April. As a result, Thales Alenia Space and its subcontractor, Orbital ATK, have completed construction and ground testing of 22 more Iridium satellites, with an additional 22 nearing final integration. A second SpaceX launch of 10 Iridium Next satellites is scheduled for April. Credit: Eutelsat via Youtube screenshot
CANNES, France — Iridium Next satellite prime contractor Thales Alenia Space on Feb. 3 said the successful early in-orbit tests of the first 10 Iridium Next satellites, launched Jan. 14, make it all but certain that deliveries of the 60 other satellites will occur as scheduled.
Thales Alenia Space is nonetheless sticking with its conservative estimates of when the coming launches will occur, especially since the schedule depends not only on Thales Alenia Space and its contracting team, including Orbital ATK, but also the readiness of launch provider SpaceX.
“The schedule depends on three things,” said Bertrand Maureau, Thales’s executive vice president for telecommunications at Thales Alenia Space.
“First is the in-orbit validation of the first 10 satellites. That has been going very well and gives us all confidence. The second is the availability of other satellites, and we already have several in storage, ready for launch. The third is the availability of the launch vehicle,” Maureau said here during a briefing largely devoted to civil-military SGDC satellite for the Brazilian government, scheduled for launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket on March 21, along with the Thales-built Koreasat-7 for the South Korean government.
It is common in the space industry for satellite builders and launch-service providers to downplay schedule issues hoping that the other supplier will be first to tell the customer of a problem.
22 satellites in storage, 10 more about there, and 12 in integration
But in the case of Iridium Next, the so-far, so-good testing of the first satellites’ payload and platform in the three weeks since launch have allowed Thales to proceed with final integration of the follow-on satellites.
Maureau said 22 further Iridium Next satellites were ready for launch as of Feb. 3, with another 10 in final integration. Another 12 satellites were having their platforms and payloads integrated, meaning 44 of the 60 satellites to be launched on six SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets are just about completed.
Iridium and Thales Alenia Space in 2010 signed a $2.3 billion contract under which Thales would deliver 81 second-generation Iridium satellites. Seventy of these are to be launched on seven SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicles.
Iridium recently booked an eighth Falcon 9 launch, set for 2018, of five Iridium Next satellites and two scientific satellites for the U.S. and German space agencies.
Next Iridium SpaceX launches anticipated in April, July
Maureau said the current launch schedule, which is subject to change as SpaceX returns to full operations following a September failure during a prelaunch test, calls for a second SpaceX launch in April. He stressed that Iridium had not yet received formal notification from SpaceX of the launch date and that the schedule was in flux.
The third Iridium Next launch, he said, appears to be slated for sometime in July, closely following the launch to geostationary-transfer orbit of the Koreasat-5A satellite, built by Thales, aboard a Falcon 9.
Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said his company would be pressing Thales for a stepped-up rhythm of launches — assuming SpaceX readiness — so that a launch every two months, and even slightly more often, would be feasible starting with the third or fourth campaign.
Desch said this was not a source of friction with Thales and that he understood the manufacturer wanted a complete validation of the performance of the first 10 satellites before accepting an accelerated cadence.
“The idea was a launch every three months,” Maureau said. “As of now we are in advance of our timeline and we should be able to get to every two and one-half months, or even every two months.”