Iridium prepares for upcoming launch of NEXT satellites

An Iridium NEXT satellite
An Iridium NEXT satellite

Iridium is making final preparations for the launch of its second block of Iridium NEXT satellites this coming weekend.

Matt Desch, Iridium CEO, said the next 10 of its new satellites are due to launch from Vandenburg AFB, California, on Sunday 25th June at 20:25UTC. If successful, this will bring the total number of Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit to 20.

We have a specific launch time because of the way our network works,” Desch said. “We have to place the satellites in specific planes or orbits, which means they have to launch at set times – if we miss the launch window we have to wait a day for the next optimum time.

After this second launch we have six more launches planned with SpaceX over the next 12 months,” Desch said.

Once deployed, this batch of satellites will be tested and validated and inserted one-by-one into our existing constellation, replacing our original block one satellites.”

The block one Iridium satellites have been providing sterling service since the 1990s.

They have each orbited the planet around 103,000 times, travelling 3.1 billion miles. To put that in perspective, that is 11 round trips to Mars and back,” Desch said.

Iridium NEXT

The first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites are launched. Image: Iridium.
The first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites are launched. Image: Iridium.

A total of 81 Iridium NEXT satellites are being built – 75 will be deployed to orbit, with 66 operational in their constellations. That means nine will serve as in-orbit spares and six will remain as ground-based spares.

The NEXT satellites are interoperable with the existing block one satellites, which will be decommissioned and de-orbited one-by-one in due course.

The completion of the Iridium NEXT constellation will enable us to introduce new, ground-breaking services,” Desch said.

The Iridium NEXT constellation will enable Iridium Certus, a new L-band multi-service communications platform giving global coverage and speeds up to 1.4 Mbps, compared with Iridium’s existing 128kbps.

Certus is in development right now and we plan to run beta trials in the second half of this year with an anticipated commercial launch in 2018,” said Desch.

Iridium NEXT is also replacing the company’s existing constellation of satellites with other powerful capabilities, including Aireon’s space-based global real-time ADS-B aircraft surveillance and tracking service.

In 2018, Aireon says it will provide the first global air traffic surveillance system using a space-based ADS-B network, which makes it possible to extend visibility across the entire planet.

Don Thoma, Aireon CEO, said its satellite-based ADS-B service will operate globally, even over the poles.

Aireon is working with 10 air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to test and implement the new service,” Thoma said.

Aireon said that around 30 percent of the globe is covered by ADS-B surveillance. But the tracking drops off about 300km away from the coast and 70 per cent of the earth’s surface is currently not under surveillance.

Space-based ADS-B is a game changer,” Thoma said.

He said that the improved routeing capabilities Aireon’s ADS-B service will enable, especially over the North Atlantic, means that up to $350m a year could be saved in fuel costs alone.

And that doesn’t take into account the savings in terms of carbon dioxide and NOX emissions,” Thoma said.

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