Iridium CEO reflects on past and future use of its satellite constellation

by Chris Gebhardt

As the end of its launch campaign for the Iridium NEXT constellation nears, Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch has reflected upon the past and future uses of the global satellite telecommunications networks in Low Earth Orbit.  Among the greatest successes of the constellation was its aid last year in both the initial and long-term recoveries on Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

More so, Mr. Desch elaborated – from Iridium’s standpoint – on Elon Musk’s announced plan to use the new Iridium NEXT constellation during Falcon 9 Stage 2 recovery efforts.

Hurricane recovery in 2017:

While we rely on our terrestrial telecommunications network for almost every aspect of our lives, a key – and not so great – element of that network is its fragility to natural and human-made disasters.

This was nowhere more evident last year than in the Caribbean – which saw widespread and unprecedented devastation as Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the region, killing thousands and destroying the land-based communications and powers systems across numerous island nations and commonwealths.

For first responders, the ability to communicate quickly and reliably with each other is key to an effective and agile response for those needing help in the wake of such disasters as the Caribbean saw last year.

Hurricanes Irma (left) and Jose (right) – which devastated some of the same islands in the Caribbean just days apart from each other. (Credit: NASA)

For Hurricane Maria and its deadly impact to Puerto Rico, Iridium’s space-based network became invaluable.

“We knew that Maria was special,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch.  “In some [disasters], when it’s not so bad, cell towers might go down, they may get blown down, but even the ones that stay up run out of fuel in their generators because power’s gone out, and they run out of fuel in, say, 24 hours.

“But usually, if it’s not so bad, the cell phone companies are able to roll fuel back in within a day or two, and they start putting towers up, and they get the cell system back up pretty quickly.

“Well, we could tell that wasn’t happening in Puerto Rico and some of the other islands.  This was so bad, they couldn’t even get trucks to places. And if they could get them, the infrastructure was damaged so badly.  So we knew that we were maybe the only thing that was operating.”

The Virgin Islands as seen from space before and after Hurricane Irma in September 2017. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The scale of the disaster and destruction of the terrestrial communications network in the Caribbean last year was so widespread and thorough that Iridium saw – for the first time – nearly their entire portfolio of devices used in some way during the immediate and longer-term recovery operations.

This included not just satellite phones (the most common device needed after such events), but also tracking devices and multi-user push-to-talk services that allow all first responders in a given area to communicate instantly with everyone on their team instead of having to rely on satellite phone relays to spread information.

“It wasn’t just satellite phones, it was really our Internet of Things services,” noted Mr. Desch.

“Having a system that [doesn’t depend] on ground infrastructure in a specific place has meant – going back to Katrina and even before – that in just about every big natural disaster, Iridium is the only thing that typically works from anywhere from the first 24 hours to the first few days.”

But Puerto Rico was different.

Iridium satellite phones allow family to communicate for the first time in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. (Credit: Iridium Communications)

“We could see this tremendous spike [in Puerto Rico and some of the surrounding islands] as first responders, as local administrations, as individuals who were pouring in, as private pilots bringing in supplies all brought in their satellite phones because their cell phones weren’t working and so they were using Iridium network phones exclusively.”

The normal decline Iridium sees in its product usage 5 days after a disaster did not occur.  Usage continued to climb steadily in the wake of Maria.

But while the Iridium network and devices were critical in last year’s disasters, people’s lives and the tragedies that affect them are not how Iridium want their systems advertised.

“It’s not the best.  It’s not the way we want to see our system advertised,” said Mr Desch.

But there is a reality that – while companies like Iridium – don’t want to stake an advertisement campaign for their services on disasters, the types of services they offer are vital in a world that relies heavily on terrestrial networks that can easily be compromised by hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes.

The struggle to rebuild terrestrial power systems in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. (Credit: NOAA)

“There’s just these constant reminders around the world that the terrestrial infrastructure is fragile. It doesn’t stay up, and a backup of some sort is very needed,” reminded Mr. Desch.

Iridium NEXT and Falcon 9 Stage 2 recovery:

But past uses of the Iridium constellation are not the only thing on Mr. Desch’s mind now that the final set of 10 Iridium NEXT satellites are nearing their No Earlier Than launch date in November 2018.

The new Iridium NEXT network will also allow needed advancements in air traffic management and aircraft tracking over remote locations of Earth’s oceans as well as continued support and fostering of new innovations within the spaceflight community as well.

Presently, Iridium satellite communications technology is on every human Soyuz flight, Rocket Lab currently uses Iridium on its Electron rocket, and an Iridium satellite phone is present on the International Space Station for backup communication needs.

In fact, Iridium satellite phones on the Soyuz crafts have come in useful in recent years.  In 2007 and 2008, back-to-back Soyuz reentries resulted in off-nominal ballistic reentries that landed their three-person crews hundreds of kilometers away from the intended landing zone.

Comparison of a nominal v. ballistic reentry profile for Soyuz. (Credit: NASA)

In both cases, the Soyuz TMA-10 and TMA-11 crews used an Iridium satellite phone to gain contact with recovery forces following landing.

But more intriguingly, in May, during a teleconference before the first flight of the Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9, Elon Musk noted that SpaceX would use the Iridium NEXT constellation as a communications platform for Falcon 9 Stage 2 recovery tests and operations.

But the use of the Iridium network is not, in actuality, a synergy between SpaceX and Iridium.

“When he [talked] about that, I wasn’t surprised,” said Mr. Desch.

Part of Mr. Desch’s non-surprise stems from the fact that the constellation works at Mach speeds.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch (not moving at Mach speed) on an Iridium handset. (Credit: Jay L. DeShetler‏ for NSF/L2)

“Something operating at Mach speeds going through the atmosphere is like standing still to a satellite going 17,000 mph seven or eight hundred kilometers above you.  So the physics works very well. As long as you can communicate with something above you, if there’s not a giant bit of metal in front of you, it works.”

But Mr. Desch pointed out that this was not a direct partnership with SpaceX or anything of the kind.

“We operate as a wholesale satellite operator.  We supply services and devices, but we really go to market through technology and distribution partners.”

Those 417 or so partners are who in turn sell Iridium-based products to various companies – be they terrestrial for space-based uses.

“So [hearing Elon say that] wasn’t a total surprise, but we hadn’t been involved in that specific application of them putting it on there because one of our 417 partners I’m sure worked with them on supplying them service, and they have the full technical ability of integrating the antenna and the application into their system.  Just like a thousand other applications have done.”

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