Spaceflight Insider

Iridium contracts 8th SpaceX launch, shares ride with NASA satellites

An artist’s depiction of an Iridium-NEXT satellite in orbit. Image credit: Iridium

With the successful launch of its first set of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites, Iridium Communications has contracted with the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences to share a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for an early 2018 launch.

Five of Iridium’s next-generation communications satellites will share the flight with the twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) satellites, a joint venture between NASA and GFZ.

The first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were launched by SpaceX Jan. 14, 2017. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

The first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were launched by SpaceX on Jan. 14, 2017. Photo Credit: Matthew Kuhns / SpaceFlight Insider

Going my way?

Iridium signed a deal with SpaceX in 2010 to launch 70 of the company’s next-generation satellites. Valued at $492 million, it was the largest single launch contract ever inked and accounts for 70 of the 72 satellites designated for its communications constellation (66 operational units and 6 on-orbit spares). The two remaining satellites were tapped to fly on a Kosmotras Dnepr rocket.

However, in a bid to complete the satellite constellation more quickly, and to make use of the excess capacity available on the GRACE-FO mission, Iridium seized the opportunity to sign a rideshare deal with the primary customer, GFZ.

The rideshare, although common in the launch industry, marks Iridium’s first foray into this more economical approach to space access.

“This is a very smart way to get additional Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch in a news release. “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.”

Efficiency all around

Sharing a launch provides more benefits to Iridium beyond completing the constellation more quickly. Flying the final satellites on a Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California allows the company to increase the number of in-orbit spares by three spacecraft. Additionally, these satellites can be placed directly into their operational orbital plane.

This direct orbital placement will allow the company to streamline its launch plan and more efficiently swap legacy satellites with the Iridium NEXT satellites. The refresh of the company’s existing constellation with the new NEXT spacecraft is unprecedented in scale and any simplification of the process represents a significant gain for the company.

The launch of the five Iridium NEXT satellites will give the company a total of 75 next-generation satellites, with nine of those being designated as on-orbit spares. Iridium will still consider the Kosmotras deal as conditions warrant.

Launch partner

Flying alongside the quintuplet of communication satellites is the pair of GRACE-FO satellites. The two gravity-tracking satellites are the primary payload for the launch and are the successor to the still-active Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites.

The GRACE-FO satellites will measure changes in Earth’s gravity field, which gives an indication to changes in mass distribution (often due to water loss, ice gain, etc.), and help provide an insight into the various processes that can directly impact the planet and those living on it.

“We are pleased to be sharing a rocket with NASA and GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences for this additional SpaceX launch, and GFZ has been a great business partner throughout this process,” Desch concluded.

The next 10 Iridium NEXT satellites are tentatively scheduled to launch in April 2017 atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base.



Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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