Aerospace Experience Benefits Iridium Next

by Matthew Kivel
posted October 21, 2013

Since launching its constellation of low-Earth-orbiting satellites in the 1990s, the company that is now Iridium Communications Inc. has delivered different iterations of global mobile communications to a fluctuating consumer base.

In the late 1990s, the Department of Defense provided Iridium with nearly 100 percent of its business, but in recent years, that margin has shrunk to around 23 percent. Private companies now comprise the bulk of Iridium’s customers; from humanitarian services to fishermen, Iridium provides wide-reaching telecom coverage to globe-trotting entities of all shapes and sizes.

Now, Iridium has chosen to develop and deploy a new constellation of satellites: Iridium Next. From the very beginning, Aerospace has been involved in the meticulous planning and development of the Iridium Next constellation. The first order of business in developing Iridium Next was securing a multi-billion dollar-loan. Aerospace helped Iridium research and compare two competing loan offers secured by the companies vying to become the project’s prime contractor — one from Lockheed Martin (with U.S. financing) and one from Thales Alenia Space (with French financing). Aerospace helped write some of the loan terms — those tied to the production and performance of the satellites — and Iridium eventually selected Thales Alenia as the project’s primary contractor.

Karl Baker leads the Aerospace team working with Iridium. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

Karl Baker leads the Aerospace team working with Iridium. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

Karl Baker serves as program lead for Aerospace’s work with Iridium Next and views Aerospace’s efforts in overseeing the ambitious project as a harmonious blend of financial and technical proficiency.

“The biggest issue in this financial transaction was answering the question: ‘how long will the current Iridium satellites last,’” says Baker. In order to appease the investment banks that were to finance the loan, Baker and his Aerospace team needed to estimate and predict the reliability of satellites that had already greatly exceeded their expected five-year life spans. If the satellites couldn’t hold up for an adequate amount of time, the loan wouldn’t make sense for the financiers. Though a technically rigorous task, the Aerospace team was able to adequately assess the lifespan of the on-orbit Iridium satellites and found that the satellites would survive long enough for the Iridium Next constellation to be developed. This information, along with other technical examination data, allowed for a loan agreement to be reached.

Though not widely publicized, Aerospace has coordinated financial deals in the past, but the Iridium Next project is the corporation’s biggest effort yet. “We’re hoping this establishes our corporation in the finance sector,” says Baker. “The Iridium Next project is the biggest commercial satellite project since the ’90s — depending on how you look at it. Building 81 satellites is a pretty big deal. It’s a high visibility project and we’re certainly hoping it’ll lead to more work.” Aerospace was able to partner with Iridium due to a history of exemplary collaboration between the two companies. “We’d done a lot of work with Iridium in the past … a lot of anomaly resolution,” says Baker. “So we had a good relationship with them and when Iridium Next came up they wanted to work with us on it.”

SpaceX will serve as the primary launch service provider for the Iridium Next constellation, and as a result, Iridium has now become SpaceX’s largest customer, signing the largest single commercial launch deal in history — worth $492 million. Baker and his Aerospace team helped set contractual milestones for SpaceX and they are closely monitoring the development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 transport rocket — which will be used to launch many of the Iridium satellites.

The first satellite launch is scheduled for 2015 and will utilize a Kosmotros Dnepr — a converted Russian missile — to carry the first two satellites into orbit. These satellites will be used for initial testing of the communications system, after which, there will be seven Falcon 9 launches with ten satellites per launch. The last launch is scheduled for 2017. Nine satellites will be built but not launched during this timeframe.

The pairing of Aerospace and Iridium Next may seem unlikely, but on a deeper level, the collaboration feels completely intuitive. Aerospace has a deep well of technical expertise that can be applied to a host of situations and critical needs. Numerous departments were called upon to consult during the Iridium Next loan negotiations, and others are still being used to monitor the building process and eventual launch of these satellites. With the commercial space market finally coming into its own, Aerospace seems poised to contribute greatly to its progression in the years ahead.