Iridium NEXT: On the Wings of Falcons

Iridium Communications has selected the Falcon 9 rocket to deploy its constellation of Iridium NEXT communications satellites. Photo Credit: Alan Walters/

Iridium Communications is set to launch its next constellation of communications satellites into orbit. This time however, it will be a far cry from when it launched its current fleet of satellites back in the 90s. The launch vehicles then had a very international flavor with U.S. Delta IIs, Russian Protons and the Chinese Long March all doing their part to hoist the satellites to orbit. This time around only a single launch vehicle will be tasked, the twice-flown Falcon 9, produced by Hawthorne, Calif-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

Iridium launched this first constellation of communications satellites within the time span of a single year, from 1997 until 1998. Iridium sent this constellation into orbit on multiple different launch vehicles. 

The Iridium NEXT is the largest commercial space launch contract with any single entity. All total, this contract is worth an approximately $3 billion.

The Falcon 9 is scheduled to complete this planned 72 satellite constellation in a mere eight launches of nine satellites each. Sixty-six of these satellites will be fully operational; the six remaining satellites will serve as on-orbit spares (in case there is a problem with any of the operating satellites). Iridium will also have nine additional spares on the ground. 

Iridium has plans to maximize every last ounce of these satellites. The company will do so by selling space on them so that other firms can attach sensors or experiments. 

“Every one of these satellites has a budget of about 110 pounds that can be used to fly extra payloads from different customers,” said Iridium’s CEO Matt Desch during a recent interview. “We will be hosting other people’s sensors on our satellites.”

The arrangement between Iridium and the NewSpace firm was just one in a string of successes as far as SpaceX is concerned. With the first two successful flights of the Falcon 9 rocket, the unspoken-but-obvious backing of the White House and the contract with Iridium, SpaceX is on a winning streak that shows little signs of abating. With the second launch of its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX became the first company to do what only nations had done before – send a spacecraft into orbit and have it return safely to Earth (the Dragon spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean a few hours after launch). 

The contract with Iridium Communications is set to see its first launch during the first quarter of 2015. With the system fully financed (as of this past fall) the company now has to build it on orbit. When the constellation of satellites is on orbit it is expected to be functioning for many years to come. 

“It was an innovative system that broke all the rules, and now we’re going to do it again,” said Desch. “A lot of people don’t realize what a powerful system we are today. They probably only remember us from 10-15 years ago. We’re going to remind them of who we are and what we are capable of, the replacement system will last until 2030 and what we will do today will last for years to come.”

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