| WASHINGTON, Sept 9
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.