The switch by Iridium to use a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for a pair of upcoming launches was driven by a desire to maintain the launch cadence. Waiting for new rockets presented a potential slip of launch date. That decision, made last month, also nets Iridium an interesting mark on history. As the company prepares for the fourth mission, slated for 22 December 2017 at 5:32pm PST, it confirmed this week that it will be the first SpaceX customer to use the same fuselage twice. The rocket taking the next ten Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit was used in June 2017 for the second Iridium launch.
“I believe that reusability is the future for satellite launches, and I think SpaceX has intelligently built their Falcon 9 program around this strategy,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch. “With three successful flight-proven Falcon 9 launches already this year, we’re excited to show leadership towards the sustainable access to space, while also making sure we maintain our cadence to complete the five remaining Iridium NEXT launches by the middle of next year.”
The new constellation is delayed into service and slowing down is bad for business. At the same time, the company is forced to weigh costs and other factors in selecting a launch vehicle and timing. SpaceX’s ability to demonstrate a reliable launch operation, using both new and pre-flown rockets, makes the switch easy. Indeed, Iridium indicated that its insurance providers are not increasing the premiums for re-use launches. That furthers the idea that the risk profile is well within reason.
The operational Iridium constellation is comprised of 66 satellites divided into six polar orbiting planes with 11 satellites in each plane. Destined for Iridium orbital plane two, nine of the 10 Iridium NEXT satellites deployed during this launch will immediately go into service following rigorous testing and validation. The remaining satellite will undertake a nearly year-long journey to orbital plane one, where it will serve as a spare satellite. To date, three Iridium NEXT launches carrying 10 satellites each have been completed. The fourth launch will bump the total number of new Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit to 40. Iridium has contracted with SpaceX to deliver 75 Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit, 66 operational and nine on-orbit spares, through a series of eight launches.
The successful launch of SES-10 on SpaceX’s first ever mission using a flight-proven rocket is opening up a new era of spaceflight. We are proud to have partnered with SpaceX on this journey of innovating and using reusable rockets that will make access to space more efficient in terms of cost and manifest management. – Martin Halliwell, Chief Technology Officer at SES.
Desch is not alone in the optimism around reusable rockets. Many others in the industry similarly hope to see reduced launch costs and quicker turnaround times in the near future. SES was the first to put a satellite into orbit on a flight-proven fuselage. Inmarsat sees similar potential to quickly move in that direction in the future.
We haven’t done that [re-use a rocket] yet; others have just begun. We are not at the point where we could afford to take a material risk there and be one of the people out there at the bleeding edge. We just don’t launch enough satellites a year. But we will be there as a fast follow once we see that it does work and that a refurbished rocket is a safe rocket. – Rupert Pearce, Inmarsat CEO