Iridium to begin production of Next communications satellites

 - December 23, 2010, 10:15 AM

Now that Iridium has successfully completed the financing for its next-generation satellite constellation, called Iridium Next, the McLean, Va., firm is looking ahead to the fun part: building and launching an all-new network of dozens of cross-linked communications satellites.

In late October Iridium completed an agreement for $1.8 billion to finance the Next constellation of advanced low-orbit communications satellites, slated for launch starting in 2015. A syndicate of nine international banks is providing the financing.

Launch of the Next satellites will be handled by SpaceX, the satellite launch company founded by South Africa-born entrepreneur Elon Musk, from the Vandenberg Spaceport in Southern California. The satellites will be constructed by Thales Alenia Space and managed by Boeing.

In connection with the closing of the financing, Iridium’s full-scale system development contract with Thales Alenia Space became effective, replacing an existing “authorization to proceed” agreement. That means designers will soon begin the task of building Next satellites, 66 of which will make up the operational constellation; another seven will serve as spares.

Thanks to a growing subscriber base, Iridium has been posting strong financial results. The company reported third-quarter 2010 revenue of $94.5 million, up more than 10 percent from a year ago. Iridium ended the quarter with 413,000 subscribers, versus 339,000 at the end of last year’s third quarter.

“We continue to reach significant operational and financial milestones at Iridium with each passing day,” said Matt Desch, Iridium’s CEO. Iridium Next, he said, has moved to the full-scale development phase. “Now that we’ve closed on our financing, we’re also accelerating our effort with potential hosted payload customers and continue to make good progress in this area.”

Iridium’s plan is to launch its satellites with sensors and equipment hosted by third parties, which will help offset the costs of putting the Next constellation in orbit.

Iridium’s current satellites host technology developed by the National Science Foundation and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab designed to monitor and forecast space weather. Iridium is in talks with others about hosting payload on the Next constellation.  

The new satellites will provide more capacity, higher data rates and flexible bandwidth. Ahead of the launch, Iridium is beginning to move new markets such as LiveTV, flight data recorder streaming and alerting, and Future Air Navigation Systems (Fans), which enables reduced separation and more direct routing through the use of datalink ATC messaging. Operational trials of Iridium Fans by Continental Micronesia and Cargolux have been completed. The company views Fans as a key growth area for Iridium Next, especially among a large share of its 24,000 general aviation subscribers.

The Next system will have backward compatibility with existing technology, meaning current Iridium satcom units will continue to function after the new satellites go live.