Satellites for the fifth Iridium NEXT launch arrive at Vandenberg

by Chris Bergin

The latest set of Iridium NEXT satellites have arrived at Vandenberg Air Force Base in preparation for the Iridium NEXT-5 launch at the end of this month. They will be launched on a Falcon 9 booster that is familiar with the mission requirements, having previously launched the Iridium NEXT-3 mission.

Iridium provides global mobile satellite communications through a fleet of satellites in low Earth orbit.

The Iridium-NEXT satellites, which are built by a partnership of Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK, are replacing and modernizing Iridium’s fleet.

Each satellite –  based on Thales’ Extended Lifetime Bus 1000, or ELiTeBus-1000, platform – has a mass of 860 kilograms (1,900 lb), and carries L- and Ka-band communications payloads.

Iridium-NEXT satellites – Credit Iridium

The first ten spacecraft were launched in January, with subsequent launches in June, October and December, bringing the total number of new-generation satellites on orbit up to 40.

The current campaign calls for the launch of seventy-five satellites aboard eight Falcon 9 rockets, with Iridium NEXT-5 set to loft the next 10 spacecraft.

Those satellites have now arrived and are in processing at SpaceX’s west coast launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, according to an Iridium statement on Monday.

The operational Iridium constellation will be comprised of 66 interconnected satellites, divided into six polar orbiting planes with 11 satellites in each plane. The larger launch total takes into account nine additional in-orbit spares with one or two in each plane.

Destined for Iridium orbital plane one, all 10 of the Iridium NEXT satellites deployed during this launch will immediately go into service following rigorous testing and validation.

“Now that we are more than halfway deployed, we can really focus on the impact our next-generation of services will make on the industry,” said Iridium CEO, Matt Desch in Monday’s update.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch on an Iridium handset – Photo from Jay L. DeShetler‏ for NSF/L2

“Testing of our exciting new L-band broadband service, Iridium CertusSM, has been performing well, and with every successful launch, we are closer to bringing our full suite of Iridium NEXT solutions to life. ”

The launch will involve the second Iridium mission to use a “flight-proven” SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Iridium NEXT-4 successfully utilized Falcon 9 booster 1036.2 during the December launch from Vandenberg, a launch that captured the imagination of the Californian public as the ride uphill provided a stunning light show over parts of the State.

Falcon 9 B1036.2 had previous launched Iridium NEXT-2 in June, before landing on the West Coast ASDS, named Just Read the Instructions, in the Pacific Ocean.

With additional synergy, Iridium NEXT-5 will use the same booster that successfully launched Iridium NEXT-3.

Falcon 9 B1041.2, which launched in October, also returned to the West Coast ASDS.

The booster was then returned to port and processed for this upcoming mission.

As is the case with all SpaceX flight proven boosters of late, the booster will be sporting the “sooty” appearance, as the company refines its booster turnaround processing. Cleaning down the booster is unnecessary, although close up photos of the “sooty” boosters show pinstripe lines along weld points and other key areas of the rocket, allowing for required inspections.

Iridium-5 is currently targeted for March 29, 2018 at 7:19 am PDT (14:19 UTC), with the launch taking place from SLC-4E at SpaceX’s Vandenberg site.

SpaceX facility at Vandenberg – Photo by Philip Sloss for NSF/L2

There is currently no official word on additional reusability goals during this mission, such as the use of the drone ship or another fairing recovery attempt using Mr. Steven.

Should all go to plan with Iridium NEXT-5 launch, the company believes it will remain on target to achieve its network timeline goals.

“With each day, we are meeting key milestones to complete our new network this year,” added Mr. Desch on Monday. “We can’t wait to see this fifth set arrive in space to keep up the momentum.”

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