Iridium’s SpaceX launch slowed by Vandenberg bottleneck

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GILBERT, Arizona — Mobile satellite services provider Iridium Communications on June 14 said the launch of the first 10 second-generation Iridium Next satellites had slipped by another month, to Sept. 12 at the earliest, because of bottlenecks at the Vandenberg Air Force Base spaceport.

Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said the company still expected to launch all 70 Iridium Next satellites, on seven SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, by late 2017.

Addressing a briefing here originally scheduled to mark the shipment of the first two satellites by truck to the launch base – the shipment will now be delayed a couple of weeks – Desch said satellite production and SpaceX readiness both had been ready for an August launch.

“It’s a little later than I had hoped, to be honest. But there are a number of non-SpaceX launches planned in August and early September at Vandenberg, so that’s the earliest they could give us for this launch,” Desch said. “SpaceX is ready, the [satellite] dispenser is ready.”

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX is building the 1,000-kilogram dispenser that will separate the 10 satellites into or bit on release from the rocket.

Each Iridium Next satellite will weigh 860 kilograms at launch, for a total satellite payload mass of 8,600 kilograms, plus the 1,000-kilogram dispenser, which will make it one of heavier missions for SpaceX. The satellites will be deployed into a 780-kilometer-altitude orbit to replace the current constellation, launched in the late 1990s.

Iridium has ordered 81 satellites from Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, is responsible for the satellites’ final assembly, integration and testing at its facility here, which was built for the Iridium work.

McLean, Virginia-based Iridium had hired Orbital to perform final assembly at a time when the company hoped to include small U.S. military hosted payloads aboard the Iridium constellation as rideshare passengers.

That did not happen, but Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Florida, has designed a distinctive white module for several hosted payloads, including the Iridium-affiliated Aireon’s aircraft flight-tracking system. The Harris module, on the Iridium Next satellites’ Earth-facing side, will also house a commercial maritime surveillance payload for exactEarth of Canada.

Having a European prime contractor work with a U.S. company handling final assembly required Orbital to create a Foreign Trade Zone here.

Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital’s Space Systems Group, said the designation allowed Orbital and Thales Alenia Space to move satellite components between Europe and the United States more easily than would have been the case otherwise.

“It allows the components to come in as foreign components,” Culbertson. “In the end, it’s all one system but if we needed to send something back for rework this allows us to do that much more simply and with less overhead.”

Under U.S. technology transfer rules, often referred to as ITAR regulations, or the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, rules that had specific application to satellite components, a European-built component would be treated as having U.S. origin once it arrived on U.S. territory.

That would mean, for example, that a lot of paperwork would need to be filed to return hardware to Thales Alenia Space, when needed for rework, because it would bear the ITAR stamp.

The ITAR regulations as applied to satellites were substantially relaxed in late 2014. It was not clear whether this relaxation had any noticeable effect on day-to-day working conditions between the Thales and Orbital engineers. Culbertson expressed thanks to local and federal U.S. government authorities for accepting and facilitating “something as complicated as a Foreign Trade Zone [that] could be set up here and keep things moving through the factory in a safe, legal and efficient way.”

Bertrand Maureau, vice president for telecommunications at Thales Alenia Space, said his company knew at the outset that complete compliance to ITAR regulations would have to be assured. “This was one of the drivers” of the way Thales Alenia Space and Orbital structured their work relations, he said.

Iridium had originally scheduled the first Iridium Next launch to be two satellites on board a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr converted missile operated from Russian territory. But the Dnepr vehicle’s immediate future is unclear and the company was obliged to start with a 10-satellite SpaceX launch.

Desch said Iridium had received no word on when Dnepr might be available, if ever, for the Iridium launch. He said Iridium would nonetheless launch all 11 spare satellites, with launch vehicles yet to be determined. “The best place for a spare satellite is in orbit, not in storage,” Desch said.

Iridium’s creditors have insisted that the company secure full insurance for the first two SpaceX launches. Desch said that had been completed.

The creditors and Iridium’s insurance underwriters had also asked that the first batch of satellites be tested for three months in orbit before a second batch was launched, to verify their design and performance.

That would mean a second launch no earlier than December, at the earliest. Desch said Iridium’s goal of having all Iridium Next satellites in service by the end of 2017 would be a challenge but was still feasible.