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Iridium plans next satellite rideshare with SpaceX

The mobile voice and data satellite network will launch five “spares” into space to bolster its communications constellation

Iridium Communications will partner with SpaceX to launch up to five of the company’s remaining ground spare satellites from the Iridium Next programme, on a Falcon 9 rocket. Known as Iridium-9, the launch is planned to take place at Vandenberg Space Force Base in mid-2023 and will be Iridium’s second rideshare with SpaceX.  

Earlier this year, Iridium celebrated the 25th anniversary of its first launch, which also took place from Vandenberg, on 5 May 1997. That launch also carried five Iridium satellites to orbit, but on a Delta II rocket.

SpaceX conducted eight previous Iridium launches between January 2017 and January 2019.  These launches delivered 75 satellites to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) as part of the Iridium Next campaign, replacing the company’s original satellite constellation. Since the completion of the launch campaign in 2019, Iridium has had 66 operational satellites, nine on-orbit spares and six additional spares on the ground.  Up to five of those six ground spares are planned for launch as part of Iridium-9.  

All satellites in the upgraded Iridium constellation were built by Thales Alenia Space and carry an Aireon-hosted payload, which provides global, real-time surveillance of aircraft around the world.

“We have always said that when the right opportunity presented itself, we would launch many, if not all, of our remaining ground spares, and just such an opportunity came about,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch.  “Our constellation is incredibly healthy; however, the spare satellites have no utility to us on the ground. We built extra satellites as an insurance policy, and with SpaceX’s stellar track record, we look forward to another successful launch, which will position us even better to replicate the longevity of our first constellation.”

Since the completion of the upgraded Iridium network in early 2019, Iridium’s customer base grew by 730,000 subscribers in three years and has more than 1.8-million today.  With that subscriber growth came several new Iridium products and services, including the Iridium Certus broadband platform, Iridium’s Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, Iridium Global Line of Sight service for uncrewed and autonomous systems, and new narrowband and speciality broadband products brought to market by a partner ecosystem.

Iridium says it remains the only commercial satellite constellation with truly global coverage, offering weather-resilient L-band service from pole to pole.  The constellation is divided into six polar orbiting planes that each include 11 operational crosslinked satellites.  The satellites from Iridium-9 will be launched into a parking orbit, and after initial testing will be drifted to assigned spare orbits.

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