Iridium Communications

Iridium Communications Inc., previously known as Iridium Satellite LLC, is a publicly listed American corporation based in McLean, Virginia, USA. The company manages the Iridium satellite network, which consists of 75 satellites, including 66 active satellites and nine in-orbit backups. Iridium satellites facilitate global voice and data transmissions through handheld satellite phones, communication devices with integrated transceivers, and satellite messengers, as well as bidirectional satellite messaging services compatible with specific Android smartphones. The nearly polar orbit of the satellites, along with their inter-satellite communication capabilities, ensures worldwide service coverage.

iridium communications

History of Iridium communications

Iridium communications service, initially known as Iridium SSC, was inaugurated on November 1, 1998. The first call made through this service was by the US Vice President Al Gore to Gilbert Grosvenor, Alexander Graham Bell’s great-grandson and chairman of the National Geographic Society. Motorola was the primary provider of technology and financing. The company’s logo symbolizes the Big Dipper, while the name “Iridium” comes from the chemical element with an atomic number of 77, which was originally thought to equal the number of satellites required for global coverage. However, after optimization and updates, only 66 satellites were needed, making the total constellation of 95 satellites with 29 as backups. 

The founding company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on August 13, 1999, nine months after its launch. This happened due to the enormous initial investment required to establish the satellite constellation, along with inferior indoor reception and bulkier, costlier devices when compared to terrestrial cellular phones, which hindered adoption. Mismanagement was also cited as a reason for the company’s initial failure. 

Iridium’s commercial failure negatively impacted other commercial satellite projects like Teledesic. Several other ventures faced bankruptcy, while some proposed projects were never built. 

In August 2000, Motorola declared that the Iridium satellites had to be deorbited. They remained in orbit and functional despite the announcement. The US government intervened in December 2000, offering $72 million in exchange for a two-year contract and approving the purchase of Iridium for $25 million in March 2001. This move eliminated over $4 billion in debt. 

Iridium Satellite LLC, a new company owned by private investors, revived the Iridium service in 2001. 

A collision occurred on February 10, 2009, between Iridium 33 satellite and a defunct Russian satellite, Kosmos 2251, 800 kilometers above Siberia, leading to the formation of two significant debris clouds.

Iridium Communicatinos – Next launch campaign

Iridium launched 75 new satellites as part of the Iridium NEXT campaign to replace its original constellation. The satellites were sent into space using SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets in a series of 8 launches. The campaign also involved upgrades to Iridium’s ground infrastructure.

The Iridium Communications NEXT project was announced in 2007, and by 2010, Iridium had secured financing and started work on launching new satellites. In June 2010, they signed a fixed-price contract with Thales Alenia Space for the design and construction of next-generation satellites for the upgraded constellation. Shortly after, Iridium announced a $492 million contract with SpaceX, designating the Falcon 9 rocket as the main provider of launch services for the Iridium NEXT campaign, marking the largest single commercial launch deal ever signed at that time, and demonstrating cost-effective satellite delivery into space.

The first of the eight Iridium NEXT launches occurred on January 14, 2017, with SpaceX from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Over the next two years, Iridium deployed 65 more satellites into low Earth orbit to entirely replace the original satellite constellation. The final Iridium NEXT launch took place on January 11, 2019, less than two years after the first launch.

The Iridium NEXT network provides coverage for the entire Earth, including poles, oceans, and airways, utilizing 66 satellites. Nine of the launched satellites act as active backups, making a total of 75 satellites launched. Additionally, six more satellites remain on the ground, serving as spares, for a grand total of 81 satellites built.

Present Status

In September 2009, Iridium Satellite LLC merged with a special-purpose acquisition company (GHQ) created by the investment bank Greenhill & Co. to form Iridium Communications Inc. The public company trades on NASDAQ under the symbol “IRDM”. In March 2018, the company surpassed one million subscribers. Full-year revenue for 2018 was $523.0 million, with operational EBITDA of $302.0 million, showing a 14% increase from $265.6 million in the previous year. 

Iridium manages several operations centers, including those in Tempe, Arizona, and Leesburg, Virginia, United States. The U.S. Department of Defense also uses the Iridium system. Matt Desch is the current CEO of Iridium LLC. 

Iridium is a founding member of the Hosted Payload Alliance (HPA), a satellite industry alliance program open to satellite operators, manufacturers, system integrators, and other interested parties. 

In July 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of Iridium for Future Air Navigation System (FANS) data links, enabling satellite data links with air-traffic control for aircraft flying in the FANS environment, including areas not covered by Inmarsat (above or below 70 degrees latitude), such as polar routes. 

In January 2020, the Iridium constellation received certification for use in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS). This certification ended Inmarsat’s monopoly on the provision of maritime distress services, which had been in place since the system became operational in 1999.

Iridium is a founding member of the Hosted Payload Alliance (HPA), a satellite industry alliance program that is open to satellite operators, manufacturers, system integrators, and other interested parties.

Air safety communications: In July 2011, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved the use of Iridium for Future Air Navigation System (FANS) data links. This enables satellite data links with air-traffic control for aircraft flying in the FANS environment, including areas not served by Inmarsat (above or below 70 degrees latitude), which includes polar routes.

Global Maritime Distress and Safety System: In January 2020, the Iridium constellation was certified for use in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS), breaking Inmarsat’s monopoly over the provision of maritime distress services since the system’s operational start in 1999.

Iridium satellite constellation: Iridium needs 66 active satellites in low Earth orbit to complete its constellation, and 9 spare in-orbit satellites serve in case of failure. The satellites are in six polar orbital planes at approximately 485 miles (780 km) in height. Satellites communicate with neighboring satellites via Ka-band intersatellite links to relay communications to and from ground stations.

Subscriber equipment: Iridium offers various subscriber equipment including satellite handsets, Wi-Fi Hotspots, one-way pagers, two-way satellite messengers, and other satellite phones. Standalone transceiver units, short burst data modems, and Iridium OpenPort are also part of their product lineup.

Iridium Certus: As part of the Iridium NEXT services, Iridium communications Certus is a global satellite broadband offering up to 704 Kbps of bandwidth across multiple industries, including maritime, aviation, land mobile, government, and IoT applications.

Partnership with Qualcomm: In 2023, Qualcomm and Iridium announced an agreement to bring two-way satellite messaging service to Android smartphones through the Snapdragon Satellite service. It will be supported on devices featuring Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 chipsets, which are expected to launch in the second half of 2023. Qualcomm stated that other devices such as laptops, tablets, cars, and IoT products may also receive Qualcomm Satellite service in the future. Garmin will collaborate with Qualcomm “to expand their satellite emergency response services to millions of new smartphone users globally.”

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