Iridium satellite

PARIS — Orbital Sciences Corp. will integrate and test the 81 Iridium Next mobile communications satellites under a contract with Iridium Next builder Thales Alenia Space, Orbital announced Jan. 27. Financial terms were not announced, but industry officials have said the contract is valued at around $150 million.

Dulles, Va.-based Orbital will receive the Iridium Next satellite platforms and communications payloads from Cannes, France-based Thales Alenia Space, and then integrate the hardware at its Gilbert, Ariz., facility.

Officials said Orbital’s industrial capacity at its Arizona plant was a factor in its selection over Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., for the integration and test work.

Thales Alenia Space and McLean, Va.-based Iridium Communications have said they expect that about 40 percent of the total $2.1 billion Iridium Next construction contract to be performed in the United States. Under the terms of its loan guarantee with the French export-credit agency, Coface, a majority of the work must be performed in France.

Iridium and Thales Alenia Space officials had insisted that the French-Italian company have a free hand to choose the Iridium contracting team even if some subcontractors held out the promise of helping Iridium find U.S. government agencies willing to place their own payloads on the Iridium spacecraft. Iridium is counting on hosted payload customers to generate up to $300 million in revenue.


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The small platform Thales Alenia Space is designing for the Iridium Next satellites can accommodate a 50-kilogram hosted payload with a power requirement averaging 50 watts.

Iridium Chief Executive Matthew J. Desch, in a Jan. 27 statement on the Orbital contract, said: “Orbital — like Iridium — is a long-time and trusted U.S. government partner, which should advance the objective of hosting payloads on our new satellites for projects such as Earth observation, scientific monitoring and space situational awareness.”

Michael Hamel, Orbital’s senior vice president of corporate strategy, said: “We believe that the hosted payload concept will grow significantly in the future as government space programs look for opportunities to carry out their mission in the most cost-effective and time critical manner. We are already seeing numerous examples of government space program customers taking advantage of the regularity of commercial satellite deployments and their demonstrated high rates of reliability. In a time of tight budgets, we see hosted payloads as great value to the customer community and intend to be at the forefront of the growth trend.”

Seventy-two Iridium Next satellites are scheduled to be launched between 2015 and 2017 aboard Falcon 9 rockets operated by Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif. The nine remaining spacecraft will be ground spares.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.