VANDENBERG AFB, Calif.SpaceX in Hawthorne, California, launched a Falcon 9 rocket and delivered 10 satellites, hosting the space-based automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) system from Aireon in McLean, Virginia, for enhanced air traffic control (ATC), to low-Earth orbit (LEO) for Iridium Communications Inc. (NASDAQ:IRDM), a global provider of mobile voice and data satellite communications (SATCOM) in McLean, Va.
The 10 satellites are the first of at least 70 satellites that SpaceX will be launching for Iridium’s next-generation global satellite constellation, Iridium NEXT, officials say. This event marked the first SpaceX rocket launch since a launch pad explosion in September 2016. It is the start of a series of Iridium NEXT launches scheduled over the next 18 months, and 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, according to Iridium officials.
The satellites were delivered into low-Earth orbit approximately one hour after the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on 14 January 2017 at 9:54:39 a.m. PST.
Iridium NEXT replaces and enhances the company’s existing network of low-Earth orbit satellites spanning the globe – the largest commercial satellite constellation in space. 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 Iridium NEXT satellites were delivered to a 625-kilometer (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.
Read more on the rocket, satellites, and hosted payload
“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,” says 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 10 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.”
Thales Alenia Space, system prime contractor for the program, 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, state-of-the-art assembly line production system.
“Leading a worldwide team to manufacture, assemble, test, and prepare each satellite for this moment has been incredibly exciting,” adds Bertrand Maureau, executive vice president of telecommunications at Thales Alenia Space. “We are very proud to have conducted such a unique program, in terms of scale and complexity as well as to have successfully completed the end-to-end whole constellation on-ground validation. The system is fully tested, and the compatibility of Iridium NEXT with the Block-1 operating satellites has been perfectly demonstrated. It has truly been an honor, and we are looking forward to completing the rest of the Iridium NEXT constellation through 2017 and early 2018.”
“Seeing these 10 satellites launch successfully into space is the result of a unique assembly-line process at our satellite manufacturing facility that represents a remarkable achievement,” explains Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group.
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.
“Iridium was one of SpaceX’s first customers, and working alongside them to deliver one of the largest aerospace projects underway is an exciting moment for us at SpaceX,” says SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.
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.
Iridium’s mobile voice and data satellite communications network spans the entire globe. Iridium enables connections between people, organizations and assets to and from anywhere, in real time. Together with its ecosystem of partner companies, Iridium delivers an innovative and rich portfolio of reliable solutions for markets that require truly global communications. The company has a major development program underway for its next-generation network — Iridium NEXT.
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