Successful launch means Iridium starts replacing aging satellites

Successful launch means Iridium starts replacing aging satellites

Satellite company Iridium began the much-needed replacement of its aging fleet on Saturday when 10 new satellites went into orbit.

The satellites – first of a planned fleet of 70 – were put into orbit in a spectacular launch by SpaceX. The rest will be launched over the next 18 months.

They will provide voice and data services to commercial and government customers, including other telecoms companies, and new internet-of-things and machine-to-machine services.

Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium, said: “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.”

Iridium’s satellites are in low-Earth orbit, less than 800km above the surface, so that they operate as a sort of cellular network in the sky – with the added benefit that latency is low compared with traditional telecoms satellites that orbit at around 35,000km up.

SpaceX is contracted to launch all 70 satellites in the Iridium Next fleet, which is intended to replace the first fleet, built by Motorola 20 years ago. The original Iridium company went into bankruptcy. Desch, former CEO of Telcordia, joined in 2006 and led a refinance.

“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 Desch on Saturday.

Only 64 of the old fleet are still working, and 66 are needed for full coverage, which means Iridium customers were experiencing some service interruptions. The new satellites will gradually replace the old craft. 

The fleet of satellites will have a near-polar orbit so that they cover all the earth’s surface, including polar regions. Traditional geostationary satellites are out of range of the Arctic and Antarctic – meaning that ships and aircraft in those areas cannot use them.

Launch of the first 10 satellites was delayed after a SpaceX launch explosion in September 2016. But Saturday’s operation was completely successful: the launch took place without delays and the stage-one booster was safely landed on a floating platform for re-use.

Satellites 11 to 20 are due for launch in April and the entire fleet, replacing the 1990s fleet, should be working by the middle of next year.

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