Relativity Space Terran 1 at Vandenberg (Source: Relativity Space)

Relativity Space to launch Iridium spares on-need basis

Launch provider Relativity Space announced it will provide up to six dedicated launches for Iridium to place the company’s ground spare satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The launches will take place on an as-needed basis using Relativity’s Terran 1 3D printed rocket.  The first launch is expected to take place no earlier than 2023.

Iridium will determine when launches will take place, but Relativity Space may have to wait beyond 2023.  The second-generation Iridium constellation finished last year has 66 orbital satellites and 9 in-orbit spares. Presumably, a ground spare would be launched if one of the production or in-orbit spares goes bad. 

“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,” said Matt Desch CEO of Iridium.  “Relativity’s Terran 1 fits our launch needs to LEO well from both a price, responsiveness and capability perspective. And we know based on our previous experience that there are great benefits to engaging with a provider early on during development of the launch vehicle and it evolving around our particular needs.” 

The Relativity Space Terran 1 is the “just right” option for Iridium, given the size and mass of its satellites.  Rocket Lab’s Electron is too small for putting an Iridium NEXT satellite into orbit while SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is too big to justify the cost for a dedicated launch unless it was a very convenient rideshare opportunity with other customers onboard.

Facilitating the Iridium launch-on-need agreement, Relativity has gained the rights to build and launch from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Access to Vandenberg enables Relativity to place satellites into polar orbits needed for the Iridium satellite constellation.  It also provides a second launch site for Relativity Space, which previous signed an agreement to launch from Cape Canaveral Launch Complex-16 in Florida.

Iridium is the fifth announced launch company for Relativity and the first to commit to launch from Vandenberg. Relativity says with its robotics and 3D manufacturing technology it can produce an entirely 3D printed rocket from raw materials to flight in less than 60 days. First flight for Terran 1 is expected to take place in 2021 from Cape Canaveral. Momentus has purchased the first launch and has options to buy up to five more. Investors supporting Relativity include Bond, Tribe Capital, Playground Global, Y Combinator, Social Capital, and Mark Cuban.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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