Iridium’s Future Riding on 7 SpaceX Launches and 1 Russian Rocket

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PARIS — The inaugural launch — aboard a Russian Dnepr — of mobile satellite service provider Iridium’s second-generation constellation may slip beyond October but the company is still on track to put 72 satellites into orbit by late 2017, Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said June 10.

Addressing an investor conference, Desch said McLean, Virginia-based Iridium Communications is now securing an insurance policy for the launches but will be able to limit the cost because it is already building spare satellites.

Desch also said Iridium gets a free relaunch from Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX if the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket fails. Iridium has booked seven Falcon 9 launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, to occur between early 2016 and late 2017.

“We did pick SpaceX and that was probably a really risky decision six years ago when we made it,” Desch said. “It’s not so risky any more. One of the things I worry about least is launch.”

Iridium has 81 Iridium Next satellites under construction. Of these, the company plans to launch 72, with the nine others remaining on the ground until needed, for example in the event of a launch failure.

Desch said the on-ground spares permit Iridium to take on part of the launch risk itself and reduce the amount of coverage it must purchase from insurance underwriters. In addition, he said, the insurance cover is only necessary for the satellites, as SpaceX is proving a reflight free of charge in the event of failure.

“We have to place insurance before launch and we’re in that process right now,” Desch said. “There’s a combination of self-insurance — we’ve built extra satellites — as well as the costs of a launch loss. We get a rocket — we already get that as part of our contract. But for the satellites it’s a loss” that would need insurance coverage.

The first launch of Iridium Next satellites will be aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket from Russian territory. The vehicle will carry two satellites. To give insurers’ confidence in the satellite design, the company has penciled in a four-month pause between the first launch and the start of the SpaceX launches.

Desch said the Dnepr flight is scheduled “in October or shortly thereafter.”

Any material slip in the Dnepr launch date might force a corresponding delay in the start of the SpaceX launch campaigns if underwriters condition the Iridium insurance policy on having several months of in-orbit tests of the first two spacecraft before the SpaceX launches begin.

Desch said Iridium’s current 66-satellite operating constellation “is performing very well. All my satellites are working and I still even have a spare.”