Iridium Looks Beyond Noncommital Pentagon for Payloads to Host

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Iridium Communications may be frustrated in its attempts to get the U.S. Defense Department to agree to place payloads on Iridium’s next generation of 66 low-orbiting satellites, but the company is pursuing multiple prospective customers for the space it is reserving on each satellite for third-party payloads, Iridium officials said.

McLean, Va.-based Iridium has sold, for a nonrefundable $10 million deposit, the equivalent of 20 percent of the constellation’s hosted payload capacity to Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., which is performing assembly, integration and testing of the Iridium Next constellation.

Orbital’s $10 million reservation gives it the right of first refusal of 20 percent of the network’s hosted payload capacity. If Orbital fully exercises its right to purchase the capacity, it would generate more than $100 million in revenue to Iridium, according to Iridium estimates.

Iridium’s offer — an Earth-facing platform able to host a payload weighing up to 50 kilograms and measuring 30 by 40 by 70 centimeters and requiring no more than 50 watts of continual power and 200 watts of peak power — recently received an endorsement from the European Space Agency (ESA).

The 18-nation ESA has issued a call for proposals for payloads to fly on the Iridium Next satellites, with a deadline of April 29. The initiative is from ESA’s telecommunications directorate, whose mandate is to reinforce the competitiveness of its member governments’ satellite component builders.

If ESA likes the proposals, their sponsors would be offered funding “to cover part of the cost of payload development and payload hosting fees,” subject to support from one or more ESA governments, according to the call for proposals. Bidders would need to identify the benefit to European and Canadian industry — Canada is an associate member of ESA — of the payloads they propose.

Another hosted payload candidate comes from a group of scientists that hope to win backing from the U.S. National Science Foundation. This group, meeting under the auspices of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, met in Annapolis, Md., in late March to evaluate missions for what Iridium is calling its SensorPOD hosted payload opportunity.

A SensorPOD is essentially a subdivision of a given hosted payload area into multiple units, each offering space for 4-kilogram sensors measuring at least 1,000 cubic centimeters and requiring no more than 5 watts of power. The idea here, according to Iridium, is to fill space that is unused by a larger third-party payload on a given Iridium Next satellite.

Lars P. Dyrud, senior scientist at the Applied Physics Laboratory, said the group has coalesced around a package of two or three sensors, none requiring major new development, which would be placed on all 66 operational Iridium satellites.

In an April 14 interview, Dyrud said the group, called GEOscan, is preparing a detailed report to the National Science Foundation in July. The foundation’s evaluation is expected in August.

With Iridium asking for all hosted payloads to be confirmed by mid-2012 for those wishing to fly on all Iridium Next satellites, Dyrud agreed there is not much time to work the issue through the foundation’s annual budget cycle.

Dyrud said there is nonetheless ample precedent in National Science Foundation programs for the kind of multiyear commitment that Iridium would require. Owners of third-party sensors would pay Iridium an annual fee to operate and maintain the payloads. Iridium has estimated it may generate up to $300 million in revenue from hosted payload customers.

“These are not new technologies, and development is very simple,” Dyrud said, adding that GPS radio occultation, climate observations and Earth imaging missions are viewed as most promising.

“It would be a real loss if we cannot get this done in time” to meet Iridium’s deadlines, Dyrud said. “We will probably not see another opportunity like this come around for another 15 or 20 years.”

 

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