Orbital Wins Iridium Next Integration

By Michael A. Taverna 
PARIS — Thales Alenia Space (TAS) has selected Orbital Sciences Corp. (OSC) to integrate and test the 81 spacecraft in the next-generation Iridium mobile satellite system.OSC will integrate the satellite bus and communications payloads, to be provided by TAS, along with hosted payloads that the system, known as Iridium Next, is expected to carry. Iridium and TAS had decided on a U.S. integrator because of the likely presence of classified U.S. government payloads, which could not be accommodated on a non-U.S. spacecraft.

Ball Aerospace, a major government supplier, had previously been expected to win the award. Ball was not immediately available for comment.

OSC officials said a decision last year to reinforce its government/military know-how and manufacturing capability through the acquisition of General Dynamics’s space business was a major factor in the win. The satellites will be assembled at Orbital’s advanced integration and test facility in Gilbert, Ariz., which was part of the acquisition.

TAS said other factors were a more competitive offer and a previous track record of working with the Franco-Italian company, particularly in the commercial satellite field.

Iridium chief executive Matt Desch says he expects OSC to facilitate the sale of hosted payloads for Earth observation, scientific monitoring, space situational awareness and other applications. According to Forecast International, Iridium is hoping to obtain $200-300 million in additional cash for the system by hosting payloads, plus additional revenues once the constellation is in service. Initial contracts could be signed this year.

The bulk of the $2.9 billion cost of building and launching the system, which will include 66 operational spacecraft, six in-orbit spares and nine ground spares, is being funded through a $1.8 billion credit package backed by French export credit agency Coface that was finalized in October. The remainder is to come out of cash flow.

The value of the OSC deal was not divulged, but TAS has said it plans to subcontract roughly 40% of the work to U.S. companies. SpaceX was selected last summer to orbit the Iridium Next satellites, and Boeing to operate and support the constellation.

It is not clear yet whether the deal will include supply of the hosted payloads. According to OSC, Iridium and Orbital are not yet ready to discuss hosted payload details.

Image: Iridium

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