Iridium satellite

LE BOURGET, France — Mobile satellite services operator Iridium Communications, whose contract to launch its 72 next-generation satellites with startup launch services provider SpaceX features an exceptionally low price, has signed a backup launch agreement with the builders of the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr rocket, Iridium announced June 20.

Moscow-based ISC Kosmotras, owned by Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakh shareholders, has operated the Dnepr vehicle from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan for more than a decade.

The silo-launched vehicle, which is a converted SS-18 ballistic missile, is able to launch two 800-kilogram Iridium satellites at a time into Iridium’s 780-kilometer orbit.

McLean, Va.-based Iridium in June 2010 contracted with Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies, known as SpaceX, to launch 72 Iridium Next satellites aboard eight Falcon 9 rockets between 2015 and 2017.

The contract, valued at $492 million, or $6.8 million per satellite, is remarkably low given today’s prevailing launch rates and reflected the startup status of Falcon 9 in the commercial satellite market.

SpaceX since then has booked other commercial satellites, and is responsible for launching the entire second-generation constellation for mobile satellite data-services provider Orbcomm of Ft. Lee, N.J.

Iridium spokeswoman Liz DeCastro said June 21 that the company had always intended to have at least two launch-service providers for Iridium Next. She declined to say whether the Kosmotras deal represents firm launch contracts or options, or whether Kosmotras is expected to share Iridium Next launch duties with SpaceX or merely step in if SpaceX’s launch schedule slips.

DeCastro said an eventual launch aboard Dnepr from Kazakhstan “should not affect our ability to host U.S. government payloads.” Iridium is seeking customers willing to put small sensors on all or part of the Iridium Next fleet as a supplemental revenue stream. The U.S. government is viewed as a likely prime sponsor of such payloads.

The Iridium Next satellites are being built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. But the satellites are being assembled, integrated and tested by Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., in part to avoid technology-export issues with future hosted payloads owned by the U.S. government.