Iridium completes NEXT satellite constellation launches, boosts aircraft tracking
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

The final 10 Iridium NEXT satellites were delivered to low earth orbit (LEO) on 11 January. The satellite constellation will be used to provide a number of services including Iridium Certus, which will deliver global L-band broadband connectivity and Aireon’s ADS-B based real-time aircraft tracking system.

The 10 satellites were delivered into LEO using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and all of them have successfully communicated with the Iridium Satellite Network Operations Center. This was the eighth and final launch of Iridium’s launch campaign (which has required an investment of approximately $3 billion) with SpaceX, which has deployed 75 new satellites in less than two years.

Iridium claims that its satellite constellation is the communications network with pole-to-pole coverage of the entire planet. It is comprised of six polar orbiting planes, each containing 11 cross-linked satellites totalling 66 in the operational constellation.

“There are few words to describe what it feels like to complete a vision started many years ago when I joined the company and what it means for Iridium and our future,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch. “Our gratitude to SpaceX for helping bring this new generation of satellites to orbit, so flawlessly every time is beyond words. However, for Iridium, we’re not quite across the finish line yet, as there is still some work to do to put these satellites into operation. Once that’s complete, our future will be in place. I’m just incredibly proud of our team right now.”

As of the announcement, 60 of the 66 satellites in operation were new, with the final six scheduled for activation in the coming weeks. Iridium NEXT satellites were designed by Thales Alenia Space, which serves as system prime contractor, and are being integrated by Thales' subcontractor, Northrop Grumman.

In total, 81 satellites are being built with 75 successfully launched. Nine of the satellites launched will serve as on-orbit spares, and the remaining six will be ground spares.

Aireon’s system is expected to provide location histories for any aircraft that use the technology and become lost, thereby reducing the likelihood of any flight vanishing like Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 did, back in March 2014. The global system will also enable flights to use the same separation distances for areas over water where there is no radar coverage as those where it is present. Aireon claims that the aviation sector will also benefit from increased safety, more efficient flight routes, more accurate arrival and departure predictions, faster emergency response times, and a decrease in CO2 emissions.

“Aireon’s space-based ADS-B network is just what the aviation industry needs,” said Marion Blakey, former administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who now serves on the Aireon US Advisory Board. “During my time at the FAA, extensive work was done to promote ADS-B technology for global air traffic management efforts. Today’s successful launch is not only a victory for Aireon but for the aviation industry, as we are now one step closer to having a clear, accurate and complete picture of the world’s airspace, including over the oceans and remote areas.”

Since this story was originally published, the L-band Iridium Certus broadband service has commercially launched – see our article in Critical Communications Today for more information has commercially launched – see our article in Critical Communications Today for more information.

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