US: Iridium Communications launched its next-generation of satellite network, Iridium NEXT. The satellites were launched in space on 25 May. The aircraft deployed a payload of 10 satellites into low-Earth orbit, approximately one hour after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
With this launch, the telecommunication company now has 20 Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit, establishing the infrastructure for groundbreaking technologies such as Iridium Certus and Aireon’s space-based Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) aircraft tracking and surveillance service. Iridium Certus is poised to disrupt industry norms by enabling truly global L-band satellite broadband speeds through smaller, more cost-effective antennas.
Since the successful January 14, 2017 launch, Iridium NEXT satellites have already been integrated into the operational constellation and are providing service. The first eight operational Iridium NEXT satellites are already providing superior call quality and faster data speeds with increased capacity to Iridium customers.
The two additional satellites from the first launch are continuing to drift to their operational orbital plane, where upon arrival they will begin providing service. Iridium NEXT satellites from today’s launch will be tested and integrated into the constellation over the coming weeks. Just as with the first launch, on-orbit testing and validation will be completed by the Iridium and Thales Alenia Space teams. Five of the 10 satellites from this launch will be sent to adjacent orbits (“planes”) to optimize the network deployment and ensure eleven operational satellites, and at least one in-orbit spare, are in each of Iridium’s six polar orbiting planes following full deployment.
“Right now, it’s two down with six more launches to go,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer, Iridium. “Our operations team is eagerly awaiting this new batch of satellites and is ready to begin the testing and validation process. After several weeks of fine-tuning, the next set of ‘slot swaps’ will begin, bringing more Iridium NEXT satellites into operational service, and bringing us closer to an exciting new era for our network, company, and partners.”
Among the many technologies enabled by Iridium NEXT is a unique hosted payload from Iridium’s partner, Aireon, which will provide a real-time, global aircraft surveillance and tracking service. Today, air traffic controllers and aircraft operators face the problem of being unable to see the location of aircraft at all times, worldwide. This is largely due to the lack of aircraft tracking infrastructure on the ground in remote regions and over the oceans. The AireonSM system is designed to solve this problem. To date, more than one billion aircraft position reports have been received by the first eight operational Aireon payloads, activated after the first Iridium NEXT launch this past January.
“Since first launch, our technology has exceeded all expectations,” said Don Thoma, chief executive officer, Aireon. “With just eight payloads, we have seen an incredible amount of data, from aircraft and vehicle antennas of both high and surprisingly low wattage. We’ve conducted flight tests with the FAA and NAV CANADA, which were designed to really push our system’s limits, while also helping to fine-tune its capabilities. We’re on a path to revolutionizing how the world sees the skies, and with each launch come one step closer to making it a global reality.”
According to analyses conducted by the Flight Safety Foundation and Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics, space-based ADS-B, utilized by the Aireon system, can increase safety while also reducing the environmental impact of the aviation industry.
Through a series of eight launches, SpaceX will deliver 75 Iridium NEXT satellites to low-Earth orbit, with 66 making up the operational constellation. In total, 81 new satellites are being built, with nine serving as on-orbit spares and six as ground spares. The satellites were designed by Thales Alenia Space, which serves as system prime contractor, and are being integrated by Thales’s subcontractor, Orbital ATK, at its Satellite Manufacturing Facility in Arizona. The production process features an 18-station, state-of-the-art assembly line system for all 81 Iridium NEXT satellites.