Iridium Communications Inc. (NASDAQ:IRDM) has contracted with SpaceX for an eighth Falcon 9 launch.
Along for the ride will be the twin-satellites of the NASA/GFZ Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, which will be deployed into a separate LEO, 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-generation global satellite network. The rideshare is anticipated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by early 2018.
Seven dedicated Iridium NEXT launches are now assigned to deploy 70 Iridium NEXT satellites into LEO across a 13 month time period. This eighth launch will increase the constellation’s count to 75 total on orbit satellites, nine of which will serve as on orbit spares. The first set of Iridium NEXT satellites was successfully launched on January 14 and is currently under test in orbit.
This launch is a rare opportunity to ride with NASA and also represents a particularly compelling economical solution. Iridium had always expected to launch additional satellites after the Iridium NEXT construction was completed to use the nine ground spares built into the program. This rideshare represents a 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.
This event 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 on 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-generation global satellite constellation. Replacing Iridium’s existing network of LEO satellites, Iridium NEXT is poised to re-energize the mobile satellite industry with faster speeds and higher throughputs for all industry verticals. 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.
GRACE-FO is a successor to the joint NASA/GFZ GRACE mission, which launched in 2002 and is still in operation. The twin GRACE-FO satellites, which operate in tandem, will continue GRACE’s legacy of tracking changes in the distribution of Earth’s mass over time by creating monthly maps of Earth’s gravity field. The movements of masses of water, ice, air, and the solid Earth are driven by processes such as precipitation, droughts, floods, the melting of snow and ice, ground water usage and storage, and even tectonic events such as large earthquakes. GRACE is improving our understanding and knowledge of a variety of important Earth system processes: the terrestrial water cycle and changes in ice sheets, glaciers and sea level, surface and deep-ocean currents; and variations in Earth’s lithosphere and mantle density. These measurements provide a unique view of the Earth system and have far-reaching benefits to society and the world’s population. The mission is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“This is a very smart way to get additional Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit,” said Matt Desch, Chief Executive Officer at 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."