June 17, 2010

Iridium, SpaceX Ink Falcon 9 Launch Deal

Iridium Communications Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) announced a $492 million deal on Wednesday in which SpaceX's Falcon 9 will be a major provider of launch services for Iridium's next-generation satellite constellation.

The deal is the largest single commercial launch contract ever signed, but the companies said the agreement represents "a new benchmark in cost-effective satellite delivery to space."

Iridium, which operates the world's largest commercial satellite constellation, recently announced its $2.9 billion "Iridium NEXT" initiative to upgrade its network of 66 operational satellites. 

SpaceX's Falcon 9 is a medium-to-heavy lift, two-stage launch vehicle capable of lifting approximately 11 tons into low-earth orbit. The launch vehicle will carry multiple Iridium NEXT satellites per vehicle, inserting the satellites into a low-earth orbit (LEO) as Iridium replaces its current satellite constellation, which operates in a LEO about 780km above the Earth.   

And Iridium spokesperson told BBC News that a special mechanism to dispense multiple payloads would be specifically developed for the task.

The Iridium NEXT satellites are set to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California between 2015 and 2017, and the contract calls for SpaceX to provide launch services to Iridium during this time.

The Virginia-based satellite services firm says it is also in discussions with, and expects to contract with, at least one additional launch services provider.

"This is the third major building block on the road to Iridium NEXT," said Iridium CEO Matt Desch.

"Two weeks ago, we announced our fixed-price contract with Thales Alenia Space," said Desch.

That deal calls for Franco-Italian manufacturer Thales Alenia Space (TAS) to build 81 spacecraft for Iridium NEXT.

"We also announced our Coface-backed financing plan, and today I am pleased to announce our partnership with SpaceX for extremely cost-effective launch services," said Desch.

California-based SpaceX has been working with Iridium and TAS to ensure compatibility between the satellite design, the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Iridium NEXT program schedule.

"We are proud to be partnered with SpaceX," Desch said.

"Hands down, SpaceX offered us the best value coupled with an unwavering commitment to flawless performance and reliability."

"SpaceX also offered dedicated Iridium NEXT launch slots within its manifest, which currently has 24 Falcon 9 flights scheduled ahead of us, including those for commercial and government customers, during the coming five years," Desch added.

Iridium has some 360,000 subscribers worldwide, and the federal government is a major client. 

Indeed, NASA's selection of Falcon 9, along with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, to resupply the International Space Station (ISS) in a $1.6 billion contract representing 12 flights to and from the ISS provided further validation for Iridium's decision, the company said.

Internet entrepreneur and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk developed the Falcon 9, and has plans to expand the company's presence in the commercial market.

"Iridium NEXT is now our largest commercial satellite launch customer and we are excited to play such an integral part in the most significant commercial space program underway today," said Musk.

"The implementation of the Iridium NEXT satellites will mark a significant achievement in mobile satellite communications, and SpaceX is looking forward to making it happen."

The June 4 maiden launch of SpaceX's Falcon 9 successfully met all of its mission objectives, culminating in a near bull's-eye insertion to its targeted 250km circular orbit, SpaceX said.

Iridium's rivals are not standing still in their plans to launch next-generation services.  California-based Globalstar said it would launch the first of its next-generation spacecraft later this year using TAS-built satellites.

Meanwhile, UK-based Inmarsat touted its new, competitively priced IsatPhone Pro handset this week, which the company hopes will prove very attractive to users.


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