Iridium Communications has announced the successful launch of its first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into low-Earth orbit.
The satellites were deployed approximately one hour after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Saturday 14 January 2017.
Iridium NEXT is the company’s next-generation satellite constellation, replacing and enhancing its existing network of low-Earth orbit satellites spanning the entire globe.
This is the start of a series of Iridium NEXT launches scheduled over the next 18 months, and Iridium says it marks the beginning of one of the biggest “tech refreshes” in history, “completely replacing the only satellite constellation providing 100-percent truly global communications coverage”.
Once fully deployed, Iridium NEXT will enable a new broadband multi-service capability called Iridium Certus, while providing the technical flexibility to support innovative new services and technologies from Iridium’s extensive partner network.
Among those technologies is a unique hosted payload from Iridium’s partner Aireon, which will provide a real-time global aircraft surveillance service, extending aircraft visibility across the planet.
The first 10 satellites were delivered to a 625 kilometre (km) temporary parking orbit where they will be tested and exercised by Iridium over the coming weeks.
Upon meeting testing and validation requirements, the satellites will then be moved into their 780km operational orbit and begin providing service to Iridium’s customers.
One-by-one, the new satellites will be positioned near a current generation satellite, each moving at approximately 17,000 miles per hour as testing begins.
Iridium’s unique inter-satellite communication links from nearby satellites will be repositioned to point to the new Iridium NEXT satellite as it prepares to take over service. Existing satellites will eventually be de-boosted and de-orbited.
Matt Desch, Chief Executive Officer of Iridium, said: “Today Iridium launches a new era in the history of our company and a new era in space as we start to deliver the next-generation of satellite communications.
“We have been working endless hours for the last eight years to get to this day, and to finally be here with 10 satellites successfully launched into low-Earth orbit is a fulfilling moment.
“We are incredibly thankful for all of the hard work from our team, as well as our partners, to help us achieve this milestone.”
Thales Alenia Space
Both Thales Alenia Space, system prime contractor for the programme, and their subcontractor for production, Orbital ATK, have been integral in the development of the Iridium NEXT program, from the design and manufacturing of the Iridium NEXT satellite vehicles to managing an 18-station assembly line production system.
In addition to partnering with Thales Alenia Space as system prime contractor, Iridium has partnered with SpaceX for the launch of 70 Iridium NEXT satellites on its Falcon 9 rocket.
The second Iridium NEXT launch will be scheduled after this testing is completed, in April. The entire Iridium NEXT network is scheduled to be completed by mid-2018.