In Largest-Ever Launch Deal, SpaceX Will Carry Iridium's Satellites Aboard Falcon 9

Falcon 9 Launch 2

In a sign that President Obama's vision for a private space industry might be gaining some legs, Iridium Communications has penned a nearly $500 million deal with SpaceX to send its next-gen satellites skyward aboard the private space carrier's Falcon 9 rocket starting in 2015.

The two-year deal, valued at $492 million, is the largest single commercial launch agreement ever made and if successful could provide a framework for the future of commercial space flight. The flights will launch Iridium's cargo into low-earth orbit from Vandenberg AFB in California.

For its part, the Falcon 9 proved itself up to the task just this month, launching into orbit successfully for the first time on June 4. Given the contract doesn't kick in for another five years, SpaceX should have plenty of time to tweak, test, and refine its launch vehicle before it goes into service. SpaceX is also contracting with NASA to ferry supplies to the space station after Shuttle flights are phased out at the end of this year.

Iridium also announced that it's conducting talks with at least one more private space provider, so there could be more lucrative news in the offing for America's private space industry in coming months.

The company has plenty of work to spread around. The company's Iridium NEXT initiative calls for a constellation of 72 orbiting next-gen communications satellites (66 operational plus 6 orbiting spares) to be put into orbit between 2015 and 2017, creating a network that will cover 95 percent of the earth. Each satellite will have the capacity to host 110 pounds or extra payload, offering government agencies and research institutions the ability to launch sensor arrays and scientific instruments into orbit aboard their commercial satellites.