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First set of Iridium NEXT satellites ready to launch in July

Artist's rendering of Iridium's NEXT satellites in space.

Artist’s rendering of Iridium’s NEXT satellites in space. Image Credit: Iridium

Iridium Communications Inc., a global satellite services provider, recently announced that the company will be ready to start deploying its next-generation constellation of satellites in late July. The network, called Iridium NEXT, is designed to offer a diverse portfolio of faster and more affordable global broadband services and devices.

The McLean, Virginia-based company confirmed their plan to have the first 10 out of 66 Iridium NEXT satellites ready to fly this summer. The first batch of spacecraft will be launched atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster from Space Launch Complex 4 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

“With our first launch with SpaceX this summer, our primary focus remains on constellation replacement and the introduction of new business services,” Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium told investors during an April 28 conference reporting first-quarter financial results. “The first Iridium NEXT satellites are now complete, and production is ramping up well. All the pieces of our program are coming together nicely as we enter our launch campaign.”

The first satellites for the constellation were originally planned to be launched in 2014, but their flights were delayed due to bureaucratic issues.

The NEXT network will consist of 81 satellites, including six on-orbit spares and nine ground-backup spacecraft.

Iridium NEXT satellite

Image Credit: Iridium

Each satellite will have a launch mass of about 1,900 lbs (860 kilograms) and is fitted with two deployable solar arrays capable of generating up to 2,200 watts of power. The satellites are expected to be operational for up to 15 years.

The spacecraft are built by Thales Alenia Space (TAS) as the prime contractor and Orbital ATK, which is responsible for assembly, integration, and test of these satellites. They are based on the ELiTeBus.

This TAS-built platform can accommodate up to 119 pounds (54 kilograms) of payload. The bus employs an L-band phased array antenna for generation of the 48-beam, 2,920-mile (4,700-kilometer) diameter cellular pattern on the Earth’s surface for communication. Ka-band links are also provided for communications with ground-based gateways and for crosslinks with adjacent spacecraft in orbit.

“Our engineers have been working tirelessly with Thales and Orbital to build the Iridium NEXT satellites and ensure that they will work as designed for many years in space,” said Scott Smith, chief operating officer at Iridium.

The NEXT satellites will be launched into a low-Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of approximately 476 miles (780 kilometers). According to Iridium, this orbit will provide pole-to-pole coverage, a shorter transmission path, stronger signals, lower latency, and shorter registration time than with geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites.

The cross-linked 66-satellite NEXT constellation is expected to form a global network in space allowing communications from a ground or airborne user from any location on Earth to anywhere else on Earth. Iridium hopes this network will enhance the company’s ability to meet the growing demand for global mobile communications on land, at sea, and in the skies.

“The flexibility of the Iridium network enables partners to create innovative products and solutions that meet emerging and future market needs,” Iridium stated.

NEXT is intended to replace the original Iridium constellation, also consisting of 66 active satellites. The company’s first constellation was put into orbit between 1997 and 2002, and it is providing voice and data coverage to satellite phones, pagers, and integrated transceivers.

The new network is planned to be completed and fully operational in 2017. Another ten satellites are scheduled to be launched in October 2016—also by a Falcon 9 rocket. Two of the NEXT spacecraft are slated to be lofted into space by the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr booster from the Dombarovsky launch site in Russia. However, due to Russian-Ukrainian tensions, this flight has been called into question.

Video courtesy of Thales Alenia Space


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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