SpaceX will offer a ridesharing flight for NASA and Iridium launch mission

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket

Earlier this year, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket returned to flight after its September 1, 2016 anomaly by launching the first set of Iridium NEXT satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). Further confirming Iridium’s dedication to SpaceX, the company announced yesterday that their constellation of 75 global communication satellites is now fully contracted to be launched into orbit by eight Falcon 9 rockets. They’ve also snagged a rare opportunity to go into space with NASA.

According to Iridium CEO Matt Desch, NASA and Iridium will be sharing the eighth and final Iridium NEXT launch in order to take advantage of cost savings. This will be Iridium’s first ever ridesharing mission.

Also confirmed by Desch, nine of the satellites in orbit will be spares, and another six satellites of the 81 built will remain on the ground as spares. The eighth Falcon 9 launch is scheduled to take place from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by early 2018, as detailed in Iridium’s press release announcing the mission.

With SpaceX’s upcoming SES-10 mission using a refurbished first-stage booster (currently planned for March 2017), the question of whether any of the eight Iridium launches would be following suit was put forth. Desch responded to a Twitter inquiry on the matter, stating that all the contracted boosters would be new.

SpaceX recently released a photo of the refurbished core to be used on the SES-10 mission after it successfully completed a static test fire.

The satellite that will be joining Iridium’s flight is the Geosciences Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On (GRACE-FO) mission, a joint NASA/GFZ German Research Centre endeavor to expand and eventually replace the currently operating GRACE mission launched in 2002.

GRACE features two identical satellites named “Tom and Jerry” which follow one another in orbit at a specified distance while primarily measuring variations in Earth’s gravity field. GRACE-FO will be deployed into a separate low-Earth orbit from the Iridium payload.

Up next for SpaceX is its 10th cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station, tentatively scheduled for no earlier than February 14, 2017, followed by the rescheduled Echostar 23 launch at the end of February and the previously mentioned SES-10 in March.

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