SpaceX launches first batch of Iridium NEXT satellites

January 17, 2017  - By
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Iridium Communications Inc. has successfully launched its first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites, which will support real-time automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) operations in oceanic regions.

Iridium NEXT is the company’s next-generation satellite constellation, replacing and enhancing its existing network of low-Earth orbit satellites spanning the entire globe — the largest commercial satellite constellation in space.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Jan. 14. (Photo: SpaceX)

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, Jan. 14. (Photo: SpaceX)

The satellites were delivered into low-Earth orbit an hour after a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:54:39 a.m. PST on Jan. 14.

The launch 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 global communications coverage.

Once fully deployed, Iridium NEXT will enable a new broadband multi-service capability called Iridium CertusSM, while providing the technical flexibility to support innovative new services and technologies from Iridium’s extensive partner network.

Aircraft surveillance

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.

Aerion’s space-based ADS-B receiver network will relay signals from all ADS-B equipped aircraft to controllers worldwide, allowing 100 pecent global air traffic surveillance. (Image: Aerion)

Aireon’s space-based ADS-B receiver network will relay signals from all ADS-B equipped aircraft to controllers worldwide, allowing 100 pecent global air traffic surveillance. (Image: Aireon)

According to Aireon, its space-based ADS-B network will transform air traffic management capabilities, providing air traffic surveillance and flight tracking across 100 percent of the planet. Currently, more than 70 percent of the earth, including oceanic and remote airspace, has no existing air traffic surveillance.

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 780-km operational orbit and begin providing service to Iridium’s customers.

As part of this testing and validation process, Aireon’s ADS-B receivers, which were manufactured by Harris Corporation, will provide air traffic surveillance data through the Aireon network to the Service Delivery Points (SDPs) at partners NAV CANADA, NATS, ENAV, the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA), as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

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 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.

“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 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 ten 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.”

Both 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,” said 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.”

“We are proud to be a part of this revolutionary satellite program,” said Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group. “Seeing these first ten satellites launch successfully into space is the result of a unique assembly-line process at our satellite manufacturing facility that represents a remarkable achievement. We look forward to seeing the innovative solutions these satellites, which are great examples of leading-edge technology and manufacturability, will enable.”

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.

“We are very proud to be chosen as the launch provider for the entire Iridium NEXT program and are excited about today’s successful first launch,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. “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.”

Iridium and SpaceX are partnered for a series of seven launches, deploying ten 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 testing is completed in April. The entire Iridium NEXT network is scheduled to be completed by mid-2018.

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