Ten Iridium Communications satellites were launched on Sunday, forming part of the Iridium NEXT network intended to increase the range of aircraft tracking and surveillance for Iridium customers. There are 20 Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit now, paving the way for global L-band satellite broadband even in hard-to-reach areas such as over the oceans. Iridium developed new, smaller antennas in order to increase call quality and data speed.
The first batch of Iridium NEXT satellites were placed into orbit after a Jan. 14 launch. It will take time for the second set to come online; while eight satellites from the first batch are already working, two have not yet arrived at their operational orbital plane.
“Right now, it’s two down with six more launches to go,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer at Iridium, in a press release. “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.”
Those ‘slot swaps’ consist of a new satellite replacing an older one. The older satellite will be positioned to burn up in the atmosphere.
On-orbit validation will be performed by the Iridium and Thales Alenia Space teams. Additional work on the project will be done by Aireon, a global aircraft tracking service and one of Iridium’s partners. Eight Aireon payloads were activated on the Iridium NEXT launch in January.
In total, 75 Iridium NEXT satellites will be delivered to low-Earth orbit by the time the project is complete. The 81 satellites (including on-orbit and ground spares) that make up the NEXT order were designed by Thales Alenia Space and integrated by Orbital ATK as a subcontractor.
The launch on Sunday was also special event for SpaceX, which carried the ten satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket. The commercial spacecraft company continues to use the recoverable Falcon 9 first stage booster, although the first stage which launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California had not been flown before. It landed on an autonomous floating platform (named “Just Read The Instructions” in Culture-fashion) in the Pacific Ocean, marking the first time that a first stage was recovered from the West Coast.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pointed out that the grid fins on the rocket were of particular interest this time around. Titanium fins were used on Sunday, as opposed to smaller and less durable aluminum fins used before.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense