June 2, 2010

Iridium Orders 81 Satellites For Global Network Upgrades

Iridium, a mobile satellite services provider, has ordered 81 spacecraft to help grow its global network.

Thales Alenia Space of France (TAS) will build the satellites.  The operational constellation will require 66 satellites, and the remaining 15 will be used as spares.

The order makes the Iridium Next venture the largest commercial space project ever.

The French export credit guarantee organization Coface will finance most of the $2.9 billion project.

"We are very pleased with the completion of our comprehensive vendor selection process," Matt Desch, the chief executive officer of Iridium, told BBC News.

"We have a great partner in Thales Alenia Space, a world leader in satellite systems, who has developed a sophisticated satellite constellation that will allow us to seamlessly transition to an even more powerful network in the future."

Reynald Seznec, president and CEO of Thales Alenia Space, told BBC, "We were selected for this contract following a long international competition that started back in 2007.

"It is the result of the dedication and commitment of our teams and those of our partners. This success is also a clear recognition of our expertise in system architecture and telecommunications in general, and also confirms our competitiveness and our leadership in the constellation market."

Iridium began operating in 1998, but soon ran into financial troubles.

The company was purchased out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000 by investors who paid a fraction of the cost of setting up the first constellation.

Iridium, which allows subscribers to make a phone call anywhere in the world, has about 360,000 customers worldwide.  The company earns revenues amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Iridium constellation operates in a low-Earth orbit about 484 miles above the planet.  The satellites are aligned in six planes and relay communications between themselves and ground stations to provide global coverage.

The distinctive arrangement of the satellites' antennas gives them their so-called "Iridium flares."

These flashes are produced by sunlight shimmering off the spacecraft and are a popular observation for skywatchers.

It was an Iridium satellite that collided with a Russian spacecraft in 2009.

The current constellation consists of 66 satellites.  The Next network will be made up of 81 satellites in total.

TAS will build 66 satellites for operational use and use the rest as spares, six of which will stay in-orbit and nine will be held on the ground.

The new spacecraft should start rolling out beginning in 2015.  The Next constellation is expected to work until at least 2030.

Globalstar, a satellite phone operator, is also in the process of renewing its network.  The company currently operates 48 satellites in a slightly higher orbit and will see its first next-generation spacecraft launch later this year.

TAS also built these crafts. 

TAS beat out Lockheed Martin of the U.S. to win over the Iridium contract.


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