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Iridium completes $3bn satellite constellation upgrade

Iridium Communications has announced the completion of its US $3 billion satellite constellation upgrade campaign known as Iridium NEXT.

{mprestriction ids="1,2"}The final two satellites required to complete the network refresh were activated on February 5th at 14:15 EST. Iridium now has 66 new satellites in its constellation and no further launches planned.

Over ten years, Iridium has created an upgraded network in both space and on the ground, with several hundred million dollars spent on building and deploying the new network. Iridium now expects capital costs to decrease to approximately $35 million per year, with revenues continuing to grow as the company expands into newer revenue streams like broadband, IoT and hosted payloads.

First announced in 2010, the Iridium NEXT campaign featured eight launches with SpaceX. In total, 81 satellites were built by prime contractor Thales Alenia Space, of which 75 were launched, with 66 in the operational constellation and nine serving as on-orbit spares. Thales Alenia Space was responsible for design and integration of the new satellites, including launch and early operations testing in partnership with Iridium’s team at the company’s Satellite Network Operations Center in Virginia.

The upgraded Iridium constellation enables never before possible services such as the AireonSM global aircraft tracking and surveillance system and Iridium Certus, a new broadband service, launched in January 2019. The upgraded network is also fully compatible with the original satellite constellation’s services.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch, commented: “The completion of the Iridium NEXT program signifies a new chapter in the Iridium story, one that sees us transforming from a big cash spender to a big cash generator. This is the realisation of a long, successful climb, and reaching the peak, it’s gratifying to know the future of the company is secure, and we have now financially matured as a satellite operator. Huge thanks are in order to our entire team, particularly our friends at SpaceX and our prime satellite manufacturer Thales Alenia Space and their teams.”

Digital Ship joined a seminar hosted by Iridium to announce the news. Desch explained to participants about the journey of the Iridium NEXT launch. “We originally designed Iridium NEXT back then to replace the 66 operational satellites and then we wanted one satellite per plane and we knew we somehow had to launch and activate 72 satellites. That would give us a significant return on the capital we had put into it.”

Desch said that Iridium instead utilised a hybrid strategy, deciding to build 81 satellites instead of 75, giving them enough satellites in case of a launch failure. The launch strategy for Iridium changed a lot over the ten years. Because of no launch failures, instead of having 6 spares in orbit, there are 9 spares and 6 in ground in case they are ever needed.

During the press conference, Iridium also introduced its new small-form-factor transceiver, Iridium CertusSM 9770. The solution will enable creation of new consumer and industrial applications that are highly portable and IoT-friendly, optimised for small size and low cost, yet with higher speeds than in the past due to the upgraded Iridium satellite network.

Built on the Iridium Certus technology platform, applications and devices made with the new transceiver will feature a range of speeds optimised for efficiently sending data to and from the user, typically in the range of less than 100kbps. The Iridium Certus 9770 is the first in a series of new devices that will augment Iridium’s existing transceivers with approximately the same form-factor as existing narrowband antennas used widely today in aviation, maritime, IoT and land-mobile markets, but using native IP technology at up to 35 times the speed as current devices.  This supports telemetry, pictures, high-quality voice calling, emails, internet access and more, at highly competitive prices. Select licensed manufacturers of Iridium can expect to receive prototypes of the device around mid-2019. {/mprestriction}

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