Fresh off the launch pad from the successful 4 June test of its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has landed the largest-ever commercial space launch deal - a $492 million contract with communication satellite operator Iridium.

Under the terms of the 16 June agreement, California-based SpaceX will use Falcon 9s to put multiple Iridium Next communications satellites into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg AFB in California from 2015 to 2017.

Iridium's planned constellation of 72 operational and nine spare Next satellites will replace its current constellation, which provides mobile voice and data services globally. Iridium expects to contract with at least one additional launch services provider.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket test firing
 © Space Exploration Technologies

Iridium chose Thales Alenia Space over Lockheed Martin for a fixed-price contract to design the next-generation satellites. Thales Alenia expects to subcontract about 40% of the work to North American companies including Ball Aerospace and Boeing.

Iridium and SpaceX are already working with Thales Alenia "to ensure compatibility between the satellite design, the Falcon 9 vehicle and the Iridium Next programme schedule".

Coface, the French export credit agency, has committed to guarantee 95% of the $1.8 billion credit facility for the construction phase of the repopulation project. The funding is expected to be completed this summer and is not contingent on Iridium raising further financing. Including launch costs, Next is a $2.9 billion programme.

Demand for SpaceX's services is high, with 24 commercial and government flights for the Falcon 9 scheduled over the next five years before it can even get to Iridium's launches.

SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk says: "Iridium Next is now our largest commercial satellite launch customer and we are excited to play such an integral part in the most significant commercial space program under way today.

"SpaceX greatly appreciates Iridium's efficient approach to satellite production - an approach we share when it comes to our launch vehicles."

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is a medium- to heavylift, two-stage launch vehicle capable of lifting 11t of payload into low-Earth orbit.

NASA selected Falcon 9 and SpaceX's in-development Dragon capsule, the first privately funded spaceship capable of putting humans into space, to carry astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. Flights are set to begin in 2011, after the Shuttle programme's planned retirement, under a 12-flight, $1.6 billion contract.

Source: Flight International