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Maritime Digitalisation & Communications

Iridium launches half of Next constellation

Mon 12 Mar 2018 by Martyn Wingrove

Iridium launches half of Next constellation
Iridium will launch 75 satellites, including 66 for the Next constellation and nine in-orbit spares

Iridium Certus will be a back-up option for VSAT once all of the 66 service satellites are commissioned and terminals are fully tested

Iridium Communications has launched more than half of its Next constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and made progress on its Certus maritime terminals. At the time of writing in early March, it had launched four of eight planned packages of satellites resulting in 40 units in LEO orbit.

In total 81 satellites will be built, of which 75 are planned for launch, including 66 in active operation, nine serving as in-orbit spares and the remaining six as ground spares. The fifth launch was scheduled for 29 March from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, USA. It will deliver the 10 new satellites into orbital plane 1. Other launches are scheduled every five to six weeks thereafter.

Iridium vice president and general manager for maritime business Wouter Deknopper described this investment as “the largest technology refresh in the history of space” because it is an entire replacement of the original Iridium constellation with crosslinking satellites. The Iridium network has six polar orbiting planes, each containing 11 operational crosslinked satellites.

As of 5 March, 34 of the new satellites had been commissioned and were serving customers, providing L-band and low-latency communications. “The remaining satellites are drifting to their operational orbital planes” from the various orbital planes they were launched into, said Mr Deknopper.

 L-band connectivity will be accessible on ships through Iridium Certus terminals, which are being built by Cobham Satcom and Thales. “It offers a new choice to the industry and through its capabilities is set to fundamentally alter the status quo,” said Mr Deknopper.

Both the Cobham Sailor 4300 and Thales VesseLink terminals are undergoing testing on land and at sea in anticipation of a commercial service introduction in Q3 2018. Iridium Certus will debut at speeds of 352 kbps “but these terminals will be capable of speeds reaching 704 kbps through a future firmware update,” he said.

The terminals feature small form-factor, solid-state, active-array antennas, “so they will operate regardless of location, climate or weather conditions,” Mr Deknopper continued. “A lack of moving parts and resulting easing of maintenance costs associated with other products offers a distinct advantage.”

“These terminals can serve as high-value, stand-alone installation or as VSAT companions”

Iridium Certus will provide connectivity across the entire planet, including the polar regions. “This includes the increasingly important and travelled Northern Sea Route and other Arctic passageways,” he explained. “These terminals can serve as high-value, stand-alone installation or as VSAT companions.”

In February, Iridium announced a list of global maritime launch partners that will provide Certus services. They are Marlink, Speedcast, Applied Satellite Technologies (AST) and Satcom Global. In addition, Arion was announced as a regional launch partner focused on delivering services to the Asian market.

Iridium Certus “was designed to meet the needs of the connected ship, through a competitively priced solution featuring state-of-the-art technology”, said Mr Deknopper. He claimed it would offer the fastest L-band broadband for the maritime industry.

He further explained that Iridium Certus “represents a new choice for L-band services, to a maritime industry that has long-awaited the higher speeds, truly global coverage, cost-effectiveness and reliability that the Iridium network can offer.”

Iridium Next & Certus

Total satellites: 81

To be in service: 66

In-orbit spares: 9

Ground spares: 6

Launched: 40

Orbit: LEO

Orbiting planes: six polar

Frequency: L-band

Completed: Q3 2018

Certus terminals: Cobham Sailor 4300 and Thales VesseLink

Debut speed: 352 kbps

Optimum speed: 704 kbps


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