Iridium NEXT satellite separating from SpaceX Falcon 9 second stage (Source: SpaceX video)

Iridium adds another 10 NEXT satellites, nearly finished new constellation

Iridium Communications put another ten satellites into orbit, today, July 25.  The stack of Iridium NEXT satellites is the seventh launch of eight planned for the company’s second generation low earth orbit (LEO) constellation.   When the last launch is completed, Iridium will have 75 new satellites in orbit providing voice and data services around the globe, plus AIS maritime and ADS-B aircraft tracking systems.

The launch took place at 7:39 am EDT from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California with the 10 Iridium NEXT satellites carried to orbit onboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.  Despite challenging weather conditions, the Falcon 9 first stage successfully landed onboard a recovery ship in the Pacific Ocean after completing its mission.  Attempts to recover the launch faring protecting the satellite were unsuccessful, however.

Iridium NEXT is replacing the company’s original 66 satellite network put into orbit over two decades ago.  The company currently has 65 new Iridium NEXT satellites in orbit, with the final launch of 10 satellites likely to happen by the end of the year.   When complete, a total of 66 satellites will make up the production network, with another nine satellites serving as on-orbit spares. Another six spare satellites are in storage on the ground.

Putting the Iridium NEXT network in place, between development, manufacturing and launch of the constellation of satellites, has cost nearly $3 billion dollars.  Each satellite is expected to last for up to 15 years and includes a mixture of L-band and Ka-band transmitters.  The constellation of 66 low flying satellites with Ka-band crosslinks enables real-time, low latency communication anywhere on the planet.

Iridum Certus is the new broadband service delivered through the NEXT constellation.  Data speeds start at 22 Kbps and will eventually be available at up to 1.4 Mbps when fully operational.  Iridium company executives emphasize higher speeds and more bandwidth will be a boon to existing and future Internet of Things (IoT) applications, opening up new options in asset tracking, fleet management and other IoT/M2M systems.

Two specialized IoT systems onboard Iridium NEXT are aircraft and ship tracking systems.  Each Iridium NEXT satellite carries a hosted payload for the Aireon ADS-B global flight tracking service. Aireon’s system will extend ADS-B aircraft tracking across the entire planet, enabling operators and stakeholders to monitor aircraft traffic in real time.  ADS-B is expected to deliver operational and fuel efficiencies for airlines, as well as provide enhanced safety benefits.

An AIS (Automatic Identification System) ship tracking payload built by Harris Corp. will be hosted onboard 58 Iridium NEXT satellites for exactEarth.  AIS is required for most maritime vessels on the high seas, enabling governments and organizations to track ships for safety, coordination, and regulatory compliance purposes.

More generic communication applications will also benefit, such as stock voice and data services used by existing commercial and government customers.  At the close of 2017, Iridium had 359,000 commercial voice and data subscribers and 100,000 government subscribers.  The company has an established ecosystem of hardware partners and system integrators to support the needs of its customers, with more than 300 qualified distribution partners worldwide.

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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