1st Iridium NEXT satellites put into production
The next-generation Iridium spacecraft are designed to provide better call quality and faster data transfer speeds to Iridium’s customer base. The first 10 satellites in the new constellation were launched on Jan. 14, 2017, atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
After undergoing a thorough testing and validation process designed to validate the satellite’s performance against established metrics, as well as a formal acceptance process between Iridium and Thales Alenia Space who manufactures the Iridium NEXT satellites, the satellites were then cleared to be put into the active constellation.
In a process known as a slot swap, the team at Iridium executed a precisely orchestrated process that replaced the old Iridium satellite with the new Iridium NEXT satellite. To date, three individual slot swaps and two dual slot swaps have been completed. Two of the new satellites are currently drifting to their assigned orbital plane.
“To say that I am proud of the Iridium satellite network operations team is an understatement,” said Scott Smith, chief operating officer at Iridium. “Conducting multiple slot swaps to replace a network of this magnitude is an incredible task, and only Iridium has the team and technical capacity to manage this project.”
The new constellation will be composed of a total of 75 of the Iridium NEXT satellites, which will be launched over eight launches, including the January 2017 flight, and is expected to be completed by mid-2018. The constellation will consist of 66 satellites serving customers, while the other nine will be on-orbit spares.
“We are deploying the largest satellite constellation in the world, and it works!” said Bertrand Maureau, executive vice president, telecommunication at Thales Alenia Space. “We met challenges that were unprecedented in the space sector, in terms of end-to-end system performance and production rate.”
The second set of 10 satellites is currently scheduled to launch at 1:02 p.m. PDT (20:02 GMT) June 29, 2017, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg. It will be an instantaneous launch window. The third set of 10 satellites is tentatively scheduled to launch in August 2017.
Following the successful deployment of the Iridium NEXT satellites, the original satellites will be de-orbited and allowed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Most of the satellites will be lowered to a 160-mile (250-kilometer) orbit where drag from the Earth’s atmosphere will slow them down and they will be pulled into the atmosphere by Earth’s gravity.
A small number of the old satellites do not have the fuel reserves to move down into the 155-mile (250-kilometer) orbit. Instead, they will be raised into a 370-mile (600-kilometer) orbit. Those satellites will take years to re-enter the atmosphere, while those in the lower orbits will take just months.
Video courtesy of Iridium Communications
Lloyd Campbell’s first interest in space began when he was a very young boy in the 1960s with NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. That passion continued in the early 1970s with our continued exploration of our Moon, and was renewed by the Shuttle Program. Having attended the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final two missions, STS-131, and STS-133, he began to do more social networking on space and that developed into writing more in-depth articles. Since then he’s attended the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, the agency’s new crew-rated Orion spacecraft on Exploration Flight Test 1, and multiple other uncrewed launches. In addition to writing, Lloyd has also been doing more photography of launches and aviation. He enjoys all aspects of space exploration, both human, and robotic, but his primary passions lie with human exploration and the vehicles, rockets, and other technologies that allow humanity to explore space.