WASHINGTON, Sept 9 Iridium Communications on Monday unveiled a new satellite concept aimed at helping governments and others put sensors and other payloads into space at half the cost of current programs.
The satellite operator said there was so much demand to put sensors on its next-generation communications Iridium NEXT satellites it will begin launching in 2015, that it decided to offer a new service to host third-party payloads on stand-alone satellites that would still be able to use the ground control and communications systems of the Iridium NEXT network.
Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch told Reuters the new venture, to be called Iridium PRIME, would allow the U.S. Air Force and others to put bigger payloads that require more power on board commercially built and operated satellites - without being wed to the schedule of communication satellite launches.
"This is disruptive," Desch told Reuters in an interview about the new product. "The ride we are offering is the lowest cost ride it could be."
He estimated the cost would be half or less of what it now costs the U.S. government and others to launch government-run and operated satellites into space.
The U.S. Air Force has been interested in so-called hosted payloads for some time, but mounting budget pressures and increasing challenges to existing U.S. national security satellites have breathed new life into those efforts.
U.S. Air Force Space Command released a formal request for proposals for hosted payload solutions last month, and says it plans to announce in June 2014 which companies will be eligible to bid for firm, fixed-price orders under the umbrella contract. Bids are due Sept. 16.
Pentagon leaders have also pushed for greater use of commercial technologies to help lower the cost of unique and "exquisite" government weapons systems.
Desch said the new program would quintuple the amount of space available for sensors from Iridium Next. Now, customers will be able to load up to 250 kilograms of equipment that utilize up to 650 megawatts of power, he said.
He said customers could opt to use all the space, or just part of it, with Iridium essentially act as a "concierge" to help match up customers and their space and timing needs.
Desch said the new satellites would be built by Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture of Thales and Italy's Finmeccanica SpA, and should be ready for launch as early as the fourth quarter of 2017.
He said they would fly an orbit near the Iridium NEXT satellites, taking advantage of the $3 billion development effort that went into those satellites and their communication and ground control systems.
Sensors for a variety of missions including earth observation, terrestrial and space-based weather monitoring, communications support including high frequency broadband services, and even classified missions could be flown on the new Iridium PRIME satellites, Desch said.
The lower cost would open the market for space-based services to many customers who would otherwise be priced out of satellite technology, the company said.
Iridium in April announced a hosted payload venture called Aereon with NAV CANADA, the Canadian air navigation service, that will put new space-based aircraft-tracking sensors on all 66 new Iridium NEXT satellites to track aircraft over oceans and other "global blind spots" beginning in 2015.
Harris Corp, which building the sensors for the Aireon venture and continues to market some available space on the Iridium NEXT satellites, is also joining the new venture.