Relativity Vandenberg site
Relativity proposes to develop a launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base to support launches to polar and sun-synchronous orbits, including for Iridium. Credit: Relativity

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle developer Relativity Space has won a contract to launch six Iridium replacement satellites, which it plans to carry out from a new launch site it proposes to develop at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Relativity announced June 24 that it won a contract from Iridium for “on-demand” launches of six replacement satellites using its Terran 1 rocket. Those launches would take place starting no earlier than 2023.

Each mission would carry a single Iridium Next satellite, launched as needed to fill in any gaps in Iridium’s constellation. The six satellites, built alongside the 75 launched on eight Falcon 9 flights between January 2017 and January 2019, are currently in ground storage.

“The upgraded Iridium satellite constellation is operating incredibly well, but it’s prudent to have a cost-effective launch option available for future spare delivery,” Matt Desch, chief executive of Iridium, said in a statement about the contract. “Relativity’s Terran 1 fits our launch needs to LEO well from both a price, responsiveness and capability perspective.”

“They chose us because we have the payload volume, mass, pricing and responsiveness required to do the six dedicated launches,” said Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, in an interview, saying winning a contract from a “blue chip” operator like Iridium was a major endorsement of his company.

Relativity expects to carry out the launches from a new site the company plans to develop at Vandenberg. Relativity separately announced it had received a “right of entry” from the Air Force for a site called B-330 at Vandenberg it would use for missions to polar and sun synchronous orbits.

The site, which currently hosts a storage and processing facility, is south of existing launch pads at Vandenberg. “That is really advantageous, because we will not overfly any existing major launch facilities,” Ellis said. “That opens up the ability to have bigger launch windows and not worry about overflying national assets.”

The right of entry is only the beginning of the process for developing a launch site there. Ellis said the next steps are an environmental study and assessment of the site with the 30th Space Wing, which operates the Vandenberg launch sites.

Construction of the Vandenberg launch site would begin after both getting final approvals from the Air Force for the site as well as completion of Relativity’s first launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex (LC) 16. The company got a similar right of entry for LC-16 in January 2019, and Ellis said a formal site license there is “imminent,” which will allow the company to start construction of launch facilities.

The first launch of the Terran 1 is scheduled for later in 2021 from LC-16. The company has resumed tests of its Aeon engine at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi that had been on hold while the center was closed during the coronavirus pandemic. Ellis said tests of the first “fully integrated” flight engine will begin there this fall, followed by second stage testing at the beginning of 2021 and first stage testing a “short time” later.

That schedule is later than the company’s original plans, which Ellis said was due in part to changes in the rocket’s design last fall to accommodate a larger three-meter payload fairing. “That was all very worth it, we felt, because that uniquely enabled us to launch these larger spacecraft,” like the Iridium Next satellites as well as those proposed for Telesat’s LEO broadband constellation. Relativity announced a contract with Telesat last year for an unspecified number of launches of satellites for that constellation.

Ellis believes that, with the payload capacity of the Terran 1 and the new Vandenberg launch site, it will be able to win business that had been going to vehicles like India’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and Arianespace’s Vega. “We’re seeing a lot more customers that want polar and sun-synchronous launches,” he said. “We’d love to bring that business back to the United States.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...