Iridium starting to deorbit legacy satellites as Next constellation comes online

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WASHINGTON — Now that its first batch of next generation satellites is in orbit and operational, mobile satellite services provider Iridium is preparing deorbit procedures for its legacy fleet of low-Earth orbit satellites that launched in the late 1990s.

Speaking with investors on a conference call April 27, Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said eight of the first 10 Iridium Next satellites launched in January are now in service, and the latter two are at the beginning of a 10-month journey to an adjacent orbital plane.

Desch said SpaceX, the launcher Iridium picked for its entire next-generation constellation, gave the company notice that it will be ready to conduct the second of eight Iridium Next launches June 29 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Setting the launch rhythm

Counting the June launch, Desch said Iridium has four more SpaceX missions this year, including campaigns slated for August, October and December. SpaceX is targeting a 60-day turnaround between each launch, starting from the second mission.

If SpaceX can hold to that pace — something Desch expressed confidence in based on the launcher’s performance this year — Iridium Next will be fully operational in mid-2018, he said.

“We’re hoping they stay on track as we’re ready to deploy satellites as soon as they can launch them,” Desch said.

Delays from both launch provider and manufacturer pushed back Iridium’s original goal of completing the Iridium Next deployment by the end of this year.

Iridium plans to launch 75 of the 81 next generation satellites it has under construction from Thales Alenia Space. The first seven SpaceX missions are for 10 satellites each, followed by an eighth mission that will orbit the last five along with a U.S.-German science spacecraft.

Desch said France-based Thales Alenia Space, which is building the Iridium Next satellites in Orbital ATK’s Arizona factory, has built 40 of the satellites so far and is on track to complete all spacecraft by year’s end.

Ending an era

Iridium’s legacy constellation, built by Lockheed Martin, is now three times past its original life expectancy. Desch said Iridium plans to keep the healthiest of the legacy satellites around as spares until the full Iridium Next constellation is in service.

Through a choreographed “slot swap” procedure, Desch said the new satellites are initially collocated with their legacy spacecraft, and both are stitched into the fleet for a brief period of time. Then Iridium decides whether or not to deorbit the older satellite, or place it in “a temporary storage orbit, approximately 20 kilometers below the operational constellation,” he said.

Those kept in the storage orbit form the basis of a contingency plan should anything go awry with the Iridium Next deployment.

“For the rest of the old satellites, our operation team follows a methodical decommissioning process to deorbit and safely retire them from lower orbit,” Desch explained. “Each of the satellites we deorbit will follow NASA recommendations with a scripted series of thruster burns to utilize all their fuel to put them in the lowest orbit possible, where they will then automatically deplete or passivate their batteries, open their electrical relays and propellant lines, and position their solar arrays for maximum drag so that the satellites will burn up in the atmosphere. We’re expecting most satellites will burn up within a year or less after completing this process.”

Desch said Iridum will deorbit the entire first generation constellation, spares and all, when Iridium Next is completed. The first such deorbit, Space Vehicle 40, or SV40, took place a few weeks ago, Desch said, and the next two are planned for the coming weeks.

Deferred payments

Because delays with Iridium Next pushed new revenue from the constellation out past what Iridium had originally expected, the company has modified payment agreements with Thales, Coface and Aireon. In an April 27 filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Iridium said Thales has agreed to delay $100 million in construction milestone payments previously expected this year and next to 2019 — the first full year of Iridium Next revenues.

Similarly, the French export-credit agency Coface and a syndicate of bank lenders that enabled Iridium’s $1.8 billion credit facility have agreed to wait until March 31, 2019, for $98 million in payments.

Desch said Aireon, an aircraft flight-tracking startup with hosted payloads on Iridium Next, has begun payments to Iridium that were also delayed by the constellation’s later than expected first launch. The amount collected so far is “less than $100,000” from Aireon and Harris Corp., the manufacturer of the hosted payloads, Desch said.

Aireon is required to pay Iridium $200 million in hosting fees for carrying its aircraft-tracking sensors, as well as data fees for delivering aircraft surveillance data using Iridium Next. As part of the conditions for the $98 million in delayed bank payments, Iridium is required to place the first $50 million in hosting fees in a restricted account, and use hosting-fee revenue above that to pay back Thales and replenish Iridium’s debt service reserve account.

Iridium reported $104.4 million in first quarter revenue, a flat amount year over year. Desch said the first products for Iridium Certus, a new higher-throughput service that uses Iridium Next, are scheduled to begin customer trials later this year, followed by commercial launch early in 2018.

Desch said long-awaited certification to provide Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) services are progressing slowly but steadily, with official certification possibly occurring in 2018 or 2019. He said Iridium will be demonstrating its ability to provide such services — over which Inmarsat has long held a monopoly — later this year at emergency centers. Despite the slow process, Desch said there haven’t been any major surprises in the process over the last year and a half.

“[It’s] hard as a CEO to see things not go faster, but I can’t really push an international process any faster, so I think it’s going really well,” he said.