Iridium Communications Inc., a global satellite services provider, has recently announced that it 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 the plans of launching this summer ten out of 66 NEXT satellites overall. The first batch of spacecraft will be lifted off atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster from the Space Launch Complex 4 at the 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. 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," Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium told investors at a conference on Apr. 28, convened to report first-quarter 2016 financial results.
First satellites for the constellation were originally planned to be launched in 2014 but the liftoff was delayed due to bureaucratic issues.
NEXT network will consist of 81 satellites, including six on-orbit spares, and nine ground-backup spacecraft.
Each NEXT satellite has a launch mass of about 1,900 lbs. (860 kg) and is fitted with two deployable solar arrays capable of generating up to 2,200 W of power. The satellites are expected to be operational for up to 15 years.
The spacecraft built by Thales Alenia Space (TAS) as the prime contractor and Orbital ATK responsible for assembly, integration and test of these satellites, are based on the ELiTeBus. This TAS-built platform can accommodate up to 119 lbs. (54 kg) of payload. The bus employs an L-band phased array antenna for generation of the 48-beam, 2,920-mile (4,700 km) 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.
NEXT satellites will be launched into a low-Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of approximately 476 miles (780 km). 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 that 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 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 lifted off by the Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr booster from the Dombarovsky launch site in Russia. However, due to the Russian-Ukrainian tensions, this flight has been called into question.