Iridium to complete next-generation satellite deployment by this fall

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WASHINGTON — Iridium expects to have its next-generation satellite constellation deployed and in service by this fall as it looks to win approvals for new maritime and aviation applications.

In a conference call with reporters May 14, Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch said the remaining three launches of Iridium Next satellites should be completed by the third quarter of this year, with the satellites in the final positions shortly thereafter.

“All of the satellites are going to be in place within probably about 30 days of our final launch,” he said. The Iridium operations team has become more efficient in maneuvering new satellites into their planned orbital slots and putting them into service. “It will be very shortly after our final launch that we will have 100 percent Iridium Next satellites.”

Iridium has launched 50 Iridium Next satellites to date on five SpaceX Falcon 9 launches dating back to January 2017. Of those satellites, Desch said 47 are in service while the other three are drifting to their planned orbital planes.

The next launch of Iridium satellites is now scheduled for May 21, two days later than previously announced, again on a Falcon 9 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. Desch said that “pretty minor processing issues and preparation of one of the components of the rocket” caused the slip, and that he didn’t expect further delays.

Unlike the previous Iridium launches, which were dedicated flights of 10 satellites each, this mission will carry five Iridium Next satellites. The launch will be shared with GRACE-FO, an Earth science mission jointly developed by NASA and the German Research Centre for Geosciences.

On that launch, the Falcon 9 upper stage will deploy the two GRACE-FO satellites into one orbit, then relight to maneuver to a different orbit for the Iridium satellite deployment. Those satellites will be deployed into orbits not quite the same as those from earlier launches, but won’t pose a major issue, Desch said.

“It might take just a few more maneuvers of our satellites to get to where they have to get to than they’re typically used to,” he said. “But it’s going to be very close to the orbit we want to be in.

With that launch, three of the six orbital planes will consist entirely of next-generation satellites. The others will be filled out by the final two launches, with the company returning to dedicated launches of 10 satellites each. One launch is scheduled for July, Desch said, with the other before the end of the third quarter.

Those final two launches will use new Block 5 versions of the Falcon 9, which made its debut with a successful launch of a Bangladeshi communications satellite May 11. Next week’s launch will use a Falcon 9 with a previously-flown first stage, as was the case with the prior two Iridium launches.

Desch said he had no problems using previously-flown Falcon 9 rockets, and that the switch to the Block 5 for the final two launches is due to a lack of availability of older reused boosters. “We were an early adopter and believe that launching on flight-proven rockets is as safe, if not safer, than launching on new rockets,” he said.

In a May 10 call with reporters, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk revealed that that SpaceX was offering a discounted price for Falcon 9 launches with previously-flown boosters: $50 million, versus a list price of $62 million. Desch confirmed that Iridium received a “modest discount” for using reused boosters, but that was not a major factor for the company.

“It’s been more about the schedule certainty of being able to use flight-proven [boosters], knowing that we could keep our 18-month to 24-month launch schedule,” he said. “That was the biggest reason.”

“SpaceX is by far the lowest-cost launch provider today,” he added. “I am not demanding much more of a reduction than what we have today, because I believe I’m getting a product — I’m getting a service, really — of high value, higher than I can get from any other supplier.”

Seeking new business

Desch also used the call to provide an update on the company’s efforts to win new business for the Iridium satellite system. While the company now has more than one million subscribers, with year-over-year growth of nearly 12 percent in the first quarter, the company is seeking to enter new business areas, including maritime communications and aircraft tracking.

Matt Desch CEO, Iridium Communications. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.
Matt Desch, CEO, Iridium Communications. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.

The company is currently seeking certification from the International Maritime Organization to provide Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) services from its satellites. If approved, Iridium would be the second satellite communications company, after Inmarsat, to have GMDSS certification.

“We expect to continue make progress in what has been a several-years-old approval process,” he said. “The addition of Iridium as a GMDSS provider will bring choice and competition, ending a decades-long monopoly and bring truly global coverage and greater capabilities in a cost-effective way.”

Progress on winning that certification is going well, and he expected to win approval and start offering the service by early 2020. “This is really a matter of when, not if,” he said.

Another area he cited was efforts by Aireon, whose aircraft-tracking payloads are included on the Iridium Next satellites, to win business. Aireon plans to make an announcement May 16 in cooperation with NATS, the public-private partnership that provides air traffic management services in the United Kingdom. Desch declined to details of any agreement between Aireon and NATS, citing the upcoming announcement.

Aireon is also undergoing an assessment by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Desch was optimistic that the FAA ultimately would become a customer and expected that evaluation process within the FAA to wrap up later this year.

Deorbiting

As Iridium completes the deployment of its next-generation satellite constellation, it’s deorbiting the older satellites. Desch said that 25 of its “Block 1” satellites have undergone a deorbiting process where the satellites are moved into lower graveyard orbits. Fifteen of those satellites have reentered and, shortly after the briefing, the company announced the reentry of two more of the older satellites.

Desch used that to raise concerns about orbital debris risks posed by the growing number of cubesats and “megaconstellations” of satellites. “When companies plan to launch hundreds, if not thousands, of small satellites, we’re concerned that these new operators may be incentivized to cut corners and take risks to speed up their deployment and lower their costs,” he said.

Of particular worry to him was the complete failure of individual satellites, which would prevent them from being deorbited or from maneuvering in the event of a potential collision with another satellite or debris. “If a significant number of their satellites fail, their satellites could be dangerously spaced for hundreds of years, becoming targets for other debris,” he said.

Iridium has first-hand experience of this threat from the 2009 collision of the Iridium 33 satellite with the defunct Russian satellite Cosmos 2251. The company has changed its operations since that event, working more closely with the U.S. Air Force to get updated information about satellites that could pose a collision risk, making a judgement about a day out from a potential collision on whether to maneuver. Desch said that the company is averaging about one collision avoidance maneuver a week among its entire satellite constellation.

With the Iridium Next satellites in place late this year, Desch said it’s “very possible” that all of its remaining Block 1 satellites could be maneuvered to graveyard orbits by the end of the year. Most of those would reenter in about a year, although as many as four to six could take 20–25 years to reenter.

For each of the deorbited Block 1 satellites, Desch said that the company holds a ceremony. “We try to honor them in their retirement,” he said. “We try to picture them feeding birds on a park bench or doing something else for their retirement.”