Iridium / Iridium NEXT

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How I decided to see Iridium NEXT and SpaceX

Sitting around at work isn’t always the bottom line and, despite what they say about people in the field of IT, I decided to get up from my computer and take a trip from my home in the Czech Republic all the way to the other side of the world. I had one goal – to see the launch of the first Iridium NEXT satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with my own eyes and possibly meet the CEO of Iridium Communications Matt Desch and share a few words with him …

Watching official sources of the new generation of the Iridium NEXT satellite system had already been my hobby for three years when, in January 2017, it all finally culminated in a dream come true. A few years before that, just for fun, I had asked myself a question – what would it be like to see the launch of these first satellites or visit the Iridium SNOC (Satellite Network Operating Center)? I should also add that these sites are completely off-limits to the public. I was fully aware that my chances of success were next to nil and there were too many reasons for it not to happen. In addition, I didn’t know a single person in the field. Nonetheless, I decided to try and prove that I was serious and that there was actually a good reason for the people at Iridium to talk to someone from Eastern Europe. I gave it a shot and, to my surprise, I set off for America in January 2017.

Thanks: Iridium, SpaceX

I would like to add that the information and photographs on this website are my own and that I am not professionally linked to Iridium Communications or SpaceX in any way. I am not a seller of their services, I do not work in the field of satellite systems or rockets, and I paid for all of my own expenses.

How it all began

In the beginning of 2014, it all started with a coincidence. I was attending a private travel lecture at the Museum of West Bohemian in Pilsen, Czech Republic and was surprised to see how few people showed up. I said to myself jokingly that a lecture on the history of Motorola with an exhibit of my own collection of products and curiosities could have attracted more visitors than the talk I was listening to. Largely by coincidence and thanks to the desire to try something new, we put an event on with the help of a few enthusiasts and blew the number of visitors at the travel lecture out of the water!

During my lecture, I briefly mentioned the Iridium satellite system made by Motorola in the 1990s and I got my hands on the first type of telephone made for the system from a Czech dealer. After doing some research, I found out that a phone like this one could actually be a very useful tool for the occasional user. I had rented one such phone before from a dealer in Prague for a short trip to the mountains where there was no classic cell-phone service. I bought the cheapest pre-paid Iridium SIM card and tried out satellite calling for the first time. I also realized that the story of the creation and existence of the Iridium system itself is as truly fascinating and compelling as any detective novel.

What is Iridium Communications all about?

Doesn’t ring a bell? I’m not all that surprised, but in the language of money, it’s a company that owns the Iridium satellite system and has been working for some time with a number of partners (Thales Alenia Space, Orbital, Harris, …) on a commercial project with a value of $3 billion to restore the Iridium satellite system.

Still not ringing a bell? Well, Iridium Communications is a company that is the largest commercial customer of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company. Yes, that Elon Musk, who created Tesla electromobiles and is engaged in a number of other areas of technology. Many other adventurers (including these from my home, the Czech Republic) use Iridium satellite telephones, which allow them to be in contact with anyone at any place and any time. Now we’re getting warmer. And what about Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications? He’s the one who established a contract with SpaceX in 2010 to launch a few dozen Iridium NEXT satellites with the help of Falcon 9 rockets. This was at a time when the Falcon 9 rocket had still made only one flight. Sounds brave, doesn’t it?

Iridium relies on SpaceX

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, had the reputation of being an eccentric and unrealistic dreamer. And thanks to the company’s bold ambitions, SpaceX was not taken seriously for quite some time (flying to Mars, reusing rockets, reducing the cost of rocket production and launching). At least once, the company was on the verge of total bankruptcy, but the Falcon 9 rocket finally pushed through. The rocket was continually improved and, in comparison to the competition, it had considerably lower production and launch costs that were a literal nightmare for competing companies.

Matt Desch had to defend his choice of SpaceX for several years after that. Of course, it was all about money (cheap launches with a rocket that could hardly fly at the time) and a belief that they could succeed. By the way, the words faith and trust are very important to Iridium, as little else can compare to their dramatic stories from the past 30 years, while their satellite system should stay in existence for at least another 15 years thanks to the Iridium NEXT project.

Delays, more delays, and cancelled launches – Iridium in a race against time

Probably the most difficult moment for Iridium was when the launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites, which had already been delayed many times before, was cancelled yet again in mid-2016. This was due to the fact that the previous Falcon 9 launch carrying a satellite of a different customer unexpectedly exploded on the launch pad during a test fire. As a result, Falcon 9 was forbidden to fly until the causes were investigated (while authorization had to be renewed from a number of institutions) … The launch that was to take place directly after this one was for Iridium, carrying their first Iridium NEXT satellites … And, thanks to previous delays of the whole project, this launch was planned to be an answer to their prayers. So, the first Iridium NEXT satellite launch was postponed once again, this time indefinitely. The whole situation started to become critical for Iridium in terms of their very existence, as their first generation of satellites was becoming obsolete – they had already been flying in space for 20 years and their original lifespan was set at only five to eight years!

An offer with absolutely no guarantees

Let’s jump back to the first days of December 2016, when I received preliminary information that the flight should take place – with a certain degree of probability – at the beginning of 2017 and if I would “be around” (it’s just a hop skip and jump away from the Czech Republic, right?), I could view the launch…

This was my situation:

  • Experience with travel around the USA: None
  • Guarantees that the launch would not be delayed: None
  • Weather forecast: Rainy (January in California)
  • Planning time: Last minute
  • Costs: Considerable
  • Sponsors: None

Possibilities of lowering overall costs: Attempts at writing possible articles on the topic of Iridium / SpaceX for several media outlets were trashed – usually there was only interest in articles in the case that the Falcon 9 exploded.

Ideally, I would be able to:

  • See the launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites (no guarantees)
  • Meet the CEO of Iridium Communications (no guarantees)
  • Possibly ask if it would be possible to  visit the Iridium system’s SNOC operations center
    (no guarantees)

How did it all go down?

I took it all as both a unique opportunity and a challenge. Despite unexpected complications just after flying into Los Angeles, it happened. The launch on January 14, 2017 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was successful, and I saw it all with my own eyes. And there’s more:

At a private banquet for select representatives of the companies involved, a celebration took place for the successful satellite launch. One of the managers of the original Iridium project from the 1990s, Durrell Hillis, was there. I was able to exchange a few words with Iridium’s CEO Matt Desch and others. It was a fascinating event and I was the only Czech there. I was also the only one not involved in any way in the Iridium project. SpaceX’s Elon Musk also appeared at the event – and why not? It was the first renewed and successfully completed launch of the Falcon 9 after its previous explosion in Florida.

A few days later, I set out for an improvised day trip from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. to visit the offices of Iridium Communications. There, I was welcomed and guided by the company’s CEO himself, Matt Desch. To my surprise, he took me straight to the very heart of the Iridium system – the Satellite Network Operations Center. The tour was thorough and extremely interesting. I also forgot to add that, when I asked if it would be possible to visit SpaceX’s factory in Hawthorne, I received the information a few days later that I could come for a private tour. They have good ice cream there, rockets too, and that’s about all I can say about it.

My dream came true, and the reality was even more amazing than I dreamed it to be. During my travels, there was no lack of high-adrenaline situations and unexpected challenges, which in the end made me enjoy it all the more.

On top of all these new experiences, I hope that this article serves as proof that when you really want something and you put your time and effort into it, it can come true. Of course a bit of luck is in order, but like the saying goes, fortune favors the brave.

The launch of the first 10 Iridium NEXT satellites was only the beginning, and the thrilling story of the Iridium satellite system continues. Sixty five more satellites are needed to replace the older generation, while six more reserve satellites will be prepared to launch into space if needed, bringing the total number of finished satellites to 81 (66 permanent + 9 + 6).

According to current information, everything should be ready by 2018, so we’ll have to wait and see what’s to come. I’ll definitely have my fingers crossed.

The Iridium satellite system today (as of the first quarter of 2017)

Iridium is the name for the commercial satellite telecommunication network with worldwide coverage for calling and data transfer. The network is made up of 66 mutually interlinked satellites located at a distance of 780km from the Earth. Telephone calls and data are transmitted from the satellites to ground networks via transmission stations in the USA, Italy, and just recently in Russia. The US Army, Iridium’s only large-scale client, has a transmission station in Hawaii. Thanks to its technical design and the number of satellites in space, it is presently the largest and most complex satellite communication system that exists. The system is highly durable and prepared to function even if several satellites malfunction at once. The Iridium satellite network is commercial and available to anyone; its services are used by a wide array of companies and individuals.

Iridium is the first and still only satellite network with worldwide coverage including both of the Earth’s poles. The company began to offer its services around the year 1998, but under a different owner. Iridium Communications is the present owner of the network and their stocks are publicly tradable on the stock market. The first generation of satellites were made by Motorola in the 1990s and, although far surpassing their expected lifespan, still make up the vast majority of the total 66 satellites necessary for worldwide coverage today. All of these satellites, however, are now being replaced with new second-generation models.

The first 10 Iridium NEXT second-generation satellites were launched on January 14, 2017 from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California during the renewed flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The first Iridium NEXT satellite, specifically the Iridium SV106, was actively linked to the Iridium network in February 2017. Nine other satellites from this launch will be gradually activated in a “one for one” exchange. The new generation satellites will be guided directly next to the first generation satellites, which will then be hauled down and guided back into the atmosphere where they will eventually perish. A total of 66 first generation Iridium satellites will be replaced and nine reserve satellites will be launched, reaching a total of 75 Iridium NEXT satellites in space. The launch and replacement process of these satellites should be completed by 2018. Until then, both first and second generation satellites will be working together.

What Iridium NEXT will offer after its completion (2018)

The second-generation satellites are manufactured in France by Thales Alenia Space and will offer not only a higher quality of voice calls, but will primarily support much faster data transfer speeds. A supported speed of 1.5Mbit/s is expected. The trend in using the Iridium network is clear – data transfers and M2M communication will continue to form the dominant portion of transmissions while the number of classic voice calls will continue to decrease. Another new feature is the reception of ADS-B messages from aircraft. The subsidiary company Aireon will offer its services for tracking aircraft in near-real time (no more lost airplanes) and services for the optimization of flight paths.

Iridium NEXT satellites can host various sensors and small devices for companies who cannot afford to launch their own satellite. Iridium NEXT satellites will also offer an alternative to GPS satellites for determining precise location together with a higher resistibility to interference. Last but not least, this new generation of satellites will ensure the functionality of the Iridium system as such, as the first generation satellites had a projected lifespan of only 5 to 8 years, but have been in operation for much longer, some for even 20 years. The new Iridium NEXT satellites have a planned lifespan of 15 years, so the continuity of the network will be preserved until at least 2030.

New services, telephones and terminals that support higher data speeds will be available after all the original satellites are exchanged for second generation models. At present, this is planned for the second half of 2018.

Current terminals and devices will remain functional but will not be able to make use of the higher speeds and new services.

Despite the existence of other satellite systems and plans of other companies to create similar ones in the future, as of today (April 2017), Iridium is still the only network with worldwide coverage and a robust design (i.e. satellites are mutually interlinked). No other network is as complex or offers such coverage.

Official resources

  1. Official pictures of Iridium NEXT 1st launch from Vandenberg AFB
  2. Official video – Satellite exhibition 2017 – event in Washington D.C.
  3. Official video – How to make a “slot swap”