Iridium launches last batch of 10 NEXT LEO satellites

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches the last 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 launches the last 10 Iridium NEXT satellites into orbit.

Iridium Communications has announced that at 07:31 am PST (15:31 UTC) on Friday 11th January 2019 a flight-proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base and delivered the final 10 Iridium NEXT satellites to low earth orbit (LEO).

All 10 satellites have successfully communicated with the Iridium Satellite Network Operations Center and are preparing to undergo initial on-orbit testing.

This was the eighth and final launch for Iridium’s historic launch campaign with SpaceX, seeing a total of 75 new satellites deployed over less than two years.

Iridium says it has invested approximately $3 billion to replace its original satellite system with a new, state-of-the-art network, ushering in an era of financial and technological transformation for the company.

It says at the core of this transformation is the dramatic change in cash flows as construction capital expenses end and a decade or longer “capex holiday” allows significant cash generation from existing and new services.

These include Iridium Certus, which it claims will provide the world’s fastest and only truly global specialty L-band broadband connectivity, enabling highly mobile internet access using smaller and more cost-effective terminals, and the Aireon aircraft surveillance system, extending real-time visibility of aircraft for air traffic controllers and airlines to the entire planet for the first time.

“It has been an honour to deliver 75 new Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit. Matt and the entire Iridium NEXT team have been incredible to work with,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer at SpaceX.

“On behalf of all of our employees, congratulations to Iridium on achieving this incredible milestone.”

It says the Iridium satellite constellation is unlike any other in orbit and is the only communications network with pole-to-pole coverage of the entire planet.

It comprises six polar orbiting planes, each containing 11 cross-linked satellites totalling 66 in the operational constellation, creating a web of coverage around the Earth.

The 10 NEXT satellites launched as part of this final mission were deployed to orbital plane three.  Since the launches began, the constellation has been undergoing a one-for-one replacement, new satellite for old, achieved through a highly-choreographed in-space manoeuvre known as a “slot swap.”

“There are few words to describe what it feels like to complete a vision started many years ago when I joined the company and what it means for Iridium and our future,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch.

“Our gratitude to SpaceX for helping bring this new generation of satellites to orbit, so flawlessly every time is beyond words.

An Iridium NEXT satellite
An Iridium NEXT satellite

“However, we’re not quite across the finish line yet, as there is still some work to do to put these satellites into operation. Once that’s complete, our future will be in place. I’m just incredibly proud of our team right now.”

To date, new satellites make up 60 of the 66 satellites in operation, with the final six scheduled for activation in the coming weeks from today’s launch. Iridium NEXT satellites were designed by Thales Alenia Space, which serves as system prime contractor, and are being integrated by Thales’ subcontractor, Northrop Grumman.

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The production process features an 18-station assembly line system for all 81 satellites being built.

“Totally deployed, Iridium NEXT is now arguably the world’s highest performance and most sophisticated constellation which represents today’s state of the art in terms of technology and flexibility and Thales Alenia Space is so proud for having risen to this huge challenge.

“I would like to thank Iridium for having placed its trust in us, and thank everybody at my company, at Iridium and at our partners for having worked as ‘One Team’, all with the sole objective of delivering the constellation to orbit as quickly as possible, while guaranteeing top-flight quality,” said Jean Loïc Galle, CEO of Thales Alenia Space.

Desch said each satellite is the size of a Mini Cooper car and weighs around one tonne.

He added that 52 of the original block one Iridium satellites have now undergone a de-boosting and de-orbiting process with 46 already having re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Desch said this is a responsible approach and he hopes other low earth orbit (LEO) satellite operators will join them.

The L-band Iridium Certus service will be one of the first to launch and Desch said its beta trials were almost complete. “The launch of Iridium Certus is imminent and we’ll have more information shortly,” he said.

Desch said Iridium is focusing on safety of life and broadband services. “We think its [safety of life] about a $700 million dollar market currently served by one satellite operator,” he said.

But he said Iridium Certus is not designed to compete with high-throughput Ka-/Ku-band mega satellite constellations. “It is complementary,” Desch said.

“In aviation applications, Iridium Certus will be in the cockpit providing operational and safety communications, while Ku and Ka will be in the cabin.”

Iridium NEXT also supports satellite-based ADS-B positioning data via Aireon.

Don Thoma, CEO of Aireon, said ADS-B allows aircraft to broadcast their positions on a regular basis. Aireon has taken the same ADS-B receivers used on the ground and placed them on the Iridium NEXT satellites

Thoma said Aireon will give real-time air traffic surveillance data for the entire planet.

Before the launch 60 Iridium NEXT satellites were receiving ADS-B signals and Aireon is receiving 13bn aircraft positioning messages per month. Thoma said it expects that to rise to 25bn per month now the constellation is complete.

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