The launch of 10 more upgraded spacecraft aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Friday will complete the build-out of Iridium’s modernized $3 billion global communications network, setting up for the debut of new broadband and aircraft tracking services in the coming months.
With Friday’s launch, SpaceX and Iridium will have teamed up for the launch of 75 payloads on eight Falcon 9 flights since January 2017, giving Iridium a full complement new spacecraft to fully replace and upgrade its aging voice and data relay network.
The 229-foot-tall (70-meter) Falcon 9 rocket, powered by a reused first stage booster that previously flew in September from Cape Canaveral, is set for liftoff at 7:31:33 a.m. PST (10:31:33 a.m. EST; 1531:33 GMT) Friday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The two-stage rocket will deploy the 10 satellites — built in partnership by Thales Alenia Space and Northrop Grumman Innovations Systems — one at a time over a 15-minute period approximately an hour after liftoff.
SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9’s first stage again after Friday’s launch on a drone ship positioned the Pacific Ocean a few hundred miles south of Vandenberg. The launch company’s net-fitted payload fairing retrieval ship, Mr. Steven, is not expected to attempt to catch the Falcon 9’s nose shroud Friday.
Matt Desch, Iridium’s chief executive, told reporters before the launch that the addition of 10 more satellites to the network — enough to complete the total replacement of the constellation — is “a huge deal.”
Iridium already has 65 new-generation “Iridium Next” satellites in orbit, and all are “happy and healthy,” Desch said. The company’s communications network operates on 66 active satellites spread among six orbital planes, plus spares, with inter-satellite radio links to relay voice and data traffic without connecting through ground stations on Earth.
Iridium’s first-generation “Block 1” satellites, built by Lockheed Martin, launched from 1997 through 2002 and were designed for seven-year missions. The bulk of the fleet far outlived that lifetime projection, and the new satellites have a double mission as replacements for the company’s aging and outdated 1990s-era constellation, and as vehicles to introduce new services to expand beyond Iridium’s bread-and-butter telephone and message relay functions.
One of the new services, named Iridium Certus, will permit customers to transmit and receive higher-bandwidth messages, including high-definition video and Internet services. Designed for ships, airplanes and other users on-the-go, Iridium Certus will provide Iridium customers with up to 1.4 megabits per second of L-band connectivity, up from 128 kilobits per second available with the previous generation of satellites.
Each Iridium Next satellite also hosts a host radio receiver for Aireon, an affiliate of Iridium established in partnership with air traffic control authorities in Europe and Canada. The Aireon instrumentation will track air traffic worldwide, including planes traveling outside the range of conventional ground-based radars.
“We broke ground on Iridium Next back in 2007, and we got started in earnest in about 2010. There was a lot of excitement when our first launch finally occurred two years ago on Jan. 14, 2017, which was amazing and very important. But our final launch… is by far the most important milestone of all.” Desch said.
“I’m sure you can imagine some of the reasons why,” he continued. “The completion of a $3 billion network refresh, the new services that we’ll be able to launch like Iridium Certus broadband, more efficient IoT (Internet of Things), and Aireon, the financial transformation it will enable for Iridium. But to me, this launch symbolizes something even more important. It means finally realizing the dream that the founders of this system had more than 30 years ago. It means our network will finally achieve the financial independence and the security that makes a satellite network operator mature and successful, and creates a lot of opportunities for us that we’ve never had before. This is a big deal for our customers, our partners, and frankly, for the industry itself.”
Originally backed by Motorola, Iridium was a pioneer in the space and communications industries, fielding the first commercial satellite fleet of its size in orbit. But Iridium declared bankruptcy soon after launching its initial batch of satellites. A new company formed to take over Iridium’s assets, including the satellites already in orbit, with a new business strategy after high prices and weak demand doomed the original Iridium concept.
Iridium now counts more than a million subscribers on its client list, and the U.S. Defense Department is one of the company’s core customers, along with aviation and maritime operators, ground transportation providers, and users in the mining, forestry and oil and gas industries.
“What’s next after Iridium Next? That answer is a lot,” Desch said. “The first new service we’ll be introducing is our special L-band broadband service branded as Iridium Certus. The name Certus is actually Latin, and it means reliable, determined, sure and certain, all adjectives we believe well-define Iridium and our new unique broadband service.
“We spent all of 2018 testing and getting Iridium Certus ready for the market, and the data trials are nearly complete. In fact, they are complete for some of our service providers, who are already starting to provide the service to their maritime customers ahead of the official commercial launch. That official launch of Iridium Certus is very imminent.”
Desch said the Iridium Certus offering will provide “safety-of-life” broadband connectivity for maritime crews and pilots. In a conference call with reporters last week, he suggested Iridium’s new L-band broadband service will not compete with high-throughput geostationary satellites and planned “mega-constellations” of hundreds or thousands of low Earth orbit spacecraft in Ka-band and Ku-band, which are aimed at the individual consumer market.
“Iridium Certus is applicable to ever industry vertical, from maritime and aviation to land mobile, and the Internet of Things,” Desch said. “We’re focusing the service on safety-of-life applications and other important specialty broadband applications. We think that’s about a $700 million market today, that we’ll be entering, primarily served by one satellite operator (Inmarsat), and we think our service will be superior in every way.”
Internet of Things is an industry term for when a type of network that relays data, measurements and other signals between numerous objects around the world, such as asset tracking and data collection technologies.
“Iridium Certus is not designed to compete with high-throughput satellite mega-constellations, or anyone using Ka, Ku, or other bands,” Desch said. “Iridium Certus is complementary. For example, in maritime applications today, L-band terminals are often installed as a companion to VSAT (Ku- or Ka-band) terminals on-board for coverage and safety purposes.”
In its favor, L-band communications typically require a smaller ground receiver than Ku- or Ka-band, and L-band is less susceptible to interference from rain, fog and storms, making it ideal for critical services. But Ku- and Ka-band offer higher bandwidth than L-band.
“In aviation applications, Iridium Certus will be in the cockpit providing operational and safety communications at optimal levels, while Ka- and Ku-band will be in the cabin for everyone to use the WiFi for entertainment services,” Desch said.
Like SpaceX’s previous launches for Iridium, the Falcon 9 rocket is programmed to place the new satellites Friday into a polar orbit around 388 miles (625 kilometers) above Earth.
Each of the 1,896-pound (860-kilogram) Iridium Next satellites will use their own thrusters to climb into a higher 476-mile-high (780-kilometer) to orbit, where six of the new spacecraft will rendezvous with an old Block 1 satellite. Ground controllers at Iridium’s network operations center in Leesburg, Virginia, will instantaneously switch traffic from the old satellite to the new craft without interruption to commercial service, in a procedure the company calls a “slot swap.”
The other four satellites launching Friday are destined to be spares in the Iridium fleet.
“This will bring the total number of new Iridium satellites in orbit to 75, and after a thorough testing and validation process lasting several weeks, we will officially complete our new constellation,” Desch said.
Aireon preps for air navigation trials in the North Atlantic
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