Iridium NEXT has contracted with SpaceX for an eighth Falcon 9 launch, and will ride along with two NASA satellites.
The NASA/GFZ Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission will be deployed into a separate low-Earth orbit, marking the first rideshare deal for Iridium.
Iridium says an agreement of this kind is economical for all parties, and affords it 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.
Matt Desch, Chief Executive Officer at Iridium, said: “This is a very smart way to get additional Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.
“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.
“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.”
Iridium had always expected to launch additional satellites after the Iridium NEXT construction was completed to utilise the nine ground spares built into the programme.
It says this rideshare represents a material savings from other supplemental launch options due to the efficiency of sharing the rocket with GRACE-FO.
It adds the incremental cost during the Iridium NEXT construction period is immaterial when considering the avoidance of unspent amounts contemplated under the Kosmotras programme.
It 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 in-orbit spares by three satellites.
This development also allows Iridium to complete the whole operational constellation at a faster rate than it would have with seven launches.
Iridium says it will still consider launching satellites with Kosmotras once approvals are available.
Next-generation global satellites
Iridium NEXT is the company’s next-generation global satellite constellation.
Replacing Iridium’s existing network of low-Earth orbit satellites, Iridium NEXT offers faster speeds and higher throughputs.
The company has contracted with SpaceX for seven dedicated Iridium NEXT launches, deploying 70 satellites into low-Earth orbit, across a 13-month period out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
This eighth launch will increase the constellation’s count to 75 total in-orbit satellites, nine of which will serve as on-orbit spares.
The first set of Iridium NEXT satellites was successfully launched on January 14 2017 and is currently under test in orbit.