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SpaceX signs largest-ever commercial rocket launch deal (Falcon 9 will be busy)

SpaceX, fresh off the success of its Falcon 9 rocket debut, has signed the largest commercial launch contract, worth $492 million.

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SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on its debut launch from launch complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 4. SpaceX, fresh off the success of its Falcon 9 rocket debut, has signed the largest commercial launch contract, worth $492 million.

Scott Audette/Reuters

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The private rocket company SpaceX, fresh off the success of its Falcon 9 rocket debut, has signed the largest single commercial launch contract with satellite company Iridium Communications, Inc. – a deal worth $492 million.

Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) has agreed to use its Falcon 9 rocket to loft Iridium's new communication satellite constellation, called Iridium NEXT, over a series of liftoffs from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base between 2015 and 2017.

"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 underway today," said SpaceX's millionaire CEO Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, in a statement. "We are impressed by Iridium's comprehensive approach and diligence in its planning as the company prepares for the design, build and launch of Iridium NEXT."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 proved its viability as an orbital rocket on June 4 during a successful first test launch from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The rocket, with a mock-up version of the company's Dragon space capsule on top, lifted off and reached orbit as planned. [Photos: SpaceX's first Falcon 9 launch.]

SpaceX already has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to haul cargo to the International Space Station on unmanned Dragon flights, as well as deals to carry other commercial payloads.

Taiwan recently ordered a launch on SpaceX's smaller Falcon 1e booster to lift its Formosat-5 optical Earth observation satellite in late 2013 or early 2014.

SpaceX is also one of the leading contenders to take up President Barack Obama's challenge for the private space industry to begin ferrying astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the space station after NASA's shuttle fleet retires later this year.

NASA plans to fly just two more shuttle missions, in September and late November, before retiring its orbiter fleet. The space agency expects to use Russian Soyuz vehicles to launch astronauts until commercial vehicles become available.

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The new contract with Iridium will add even more launches to the growing docket for the fledgling SpaceX, which already had 24 Falcon 9 flights – including commercial and NASA launches – scheduled before the contract.

"We are proud to be partnered with SpaceX, and want to congratulate Elon Musk and the entire SpaceX team on its successful inaugural Falcon 9 launch," Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, said in a statement. "Hands down, SpaceX offered us the best value coupled with an unwavering commitment to flawless performance and reliability. SpaceX has combined the best of aerospace and commercial best practices to design reliable and cost-effective access to space, and Iridium will be the beneficiary of that effort."

Iridium, based in McLean, Va., offers mobile voice and data services across the entire planet.

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