Iridium Communications has launched its first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites. The satellites were delivered into low-Earth orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California via the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on 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 – the largest commercial satellite constellation in space.
This is the start of a series of Iridium NEXT launches scheduled over the next 18 months, and marks the beginning of what it describes as one of the biggest ‘tech refreshes’ in history, completely replacing the only satellite constellation providing 100% 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 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 Iridium NEXT satellites were delivered to a 625km 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.
“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,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer of Iridium.
“We have been working endless hours for the last eight years to get to this day, and to finally be here with ten Iridium NEXT 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.”
Iridium and SpaceX are partnered for a series of seven launches, deploying 10 Iridium NEXT satellites at a time. The next major milestone will be the completion of on-orbit testing of these satellites, to validate performance requirements are met.
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.
Image: courtesy of Iridium (artist impression)