January 29, 2019
Iridium Communications, in partnership with SpaceX, has deployed 75 new satellites into low earth orbit in under two years. The last 10 were launched in early January.
"There are few words to describe what it feels like to complete a vision started many years ago," said Iridium CEO Matt Desch. "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."
The company invested about $3 billion in replacing its aging satellite network with new state-of-the-art Iridium NEXT satellites. While the original satellites, which were built by Motorola and Lockheed Martin, were designed with a five- to seven-year life span, they have been functioning for 18 years. The second-generation satellites were built by Thales Alenia Space and integrated by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.
The system consists of six polar orbiting planes that each have 11 cross-linked satellites, creating an interconnected web of 66 satellites around the planet. Nine satellites will serve as in-orbit spares. While it can take years to build a satellite, Iridium NEXT satellites were built in as little as 50 days.
Iridium has been deploying the satellites through a delicate and complicated process known as “slot swap”—in which an old satellite is replaced with a new one, at a speed of over 17,000 miles an hour, while maintaining service.
Iridium claims that, with these satellites, it has the only mobile voice and data communications network that covers the entire planet from pole to pole. The network will support services such as Iridium Certus, which will provide specialty L-band broadband connectivity for field teams, vehicles and Internet of Things (IoT) components in locations that previously had no access to cellular coverage.
The network will also support the Aireon aircraft surveillance system, the world's first 100 percent global air traffic surveillance system. It provides real-time visibility of aircraft for air traffic controllers and airlines across the planet—including those in remote and oceanic airspace.
Iridium’s new satellite network has the potential to significantly enhance the effectiveness and reach of global wireless communications—and the company isn’t resting on its laurels. In fact, just days after deploying the last 10 satellites, the company announced the commercial launch of its Certus service.
"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," said Jean Loïc Galle, CEO of Thales Alenia Space.
Read more about another satellite constellation in development at SpaceX Starlink Constellation.
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