Iridium made the first major commercial attempt to build a big-time satellite network back in the 1990s. Now, the company is turning to SpaceX to help replace its aging constellation—an operation Iridium likes to call the world’s largest tech upgrade.
At 4:25 pm ET (8:25 p.m. GMT) today, a brand-new SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch ten communications satellites, weighing a total of more than 9,000 kg (20,000 lbs), into orbit from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. After the rocket’s second stage separates to carry the satellites further into orbit, the first stage will attempt to return through the atmosphere and land on a robotic barge in the Pacific, to be reused in a future launch.
You can watch whole show live on SpaceX’s webcast, starting about 15 minutes before the launch:
Today’s mission will mark the second launch for SpaceX in less than 48 hours—a remarkably fast turnaround. On June 23, the company launched Bulgaria’s first commercial communications satellite from Cape Canaveral, Florida, using a previously flown rocket for just the second time. That particular rocket’s first mission is linked to this one: In January, it launched the first ten satellites in Iridium’s new constellation and then landed on the autonomous drone ship. After being refurbished and trucked to Florida, it flew the Bulgarians satellite and landed, with a bit of a crunch, on SpaceX’s robot barge in the Atlantic ocean. That makes it the first orbital rocket ever to launch and return from opposite US coasts.
The rocket flying today has a few neat features.
One is the satellite carrier SpaceX designed specifically for the Iridium NEXT missions, which functions something like an orbital PEZ dispenser, popping out each satellite at the correct time so that they fly in the right place. (Carefully spacing satellites is critical to ensuring the full coverage Iridium hopes to provide.) This cargo-carrying modification will allow SpaceX to launch seventy-five satellites in total over eight flights between now and mid-2018.
Another notable feature: new “grid fins,” the stubby, honeycomb wings that fold out of the rocket booster to guide its return to earth. Having seen previous fins suffer severe damage due to the heat of reentry, SpaceX has changed the way they are made to lower the cost of refurbishment. Now the fins are carved from a single piece of titanium to ensure their resilience—and don’t be fooled by the scale of the rocket, the grid fins are about 20 square feet in area, so we are talking about a massive piece of metal. It’s one of many small investments SpaceX has made in designing its rockets to safely pilot themselves to a soft landing back on earth so they can be reused at a discount.
Starting in 1997, flying Iridium’s first constellation required twenty rocket launches over a seventeen-month period. Finding enough rockets to fly them required launching in the United States, China and Russia. The expense behind that global effort ultimately left Iridium bankrupt just nine months after vice president Al Gore made the first-ever phone call on its sat phone service (to then-wife Tipper, natch). Iridium was eventually bailed out by private investors and the US Department of Defense, which uses some of its satellite capacity. A total replacement of its existing satellites will, if all goes to plan, only require eight launches in about a year from a single launch site—a sign of twenty years of progress in space business.
This launch will be the ninth orbital rocket launched by SpaceX this year, making it the busiest in the company’s history. Musk’s startup is aiming to launch more rockets this year than its primary competitors, United Launch Alliance and Arianespace, and so far they are on pace to beat the incumbents for the first time.