Iridium Communications Inc. (Nasdaq:IRDM) announces its first Iridium NEXT satellites have completed assembly and testing, and are now prepared for shipment to the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The shipment of these satellites represents a significant milestone toward the first launch of the Iridium NEXT constellation, which the company officially announced as targeted for September 12, 2016.
“This is a really exciting milestone. After more than seven years of effort, the first of our next-generation satellites are finally ready for space,” said Matt Desch, chief executive officer, Iridium. “It has been fantastic to witness our satellites evolve from manufacturing designs to fully functioning vehicles, and we congratulate everyone involved in making this goal possible. This program replaces the largest commercial satellite constellation in space with state-of-the-art technology and new capabilities, allowing Iridium to support the connectivity needs of today, as well as those yet to be imagined.”
Assembly, integration and testing of the satellites are performed by Thales Alenia Space and their subcontractor, Orbital ATK, at the Orbital ATK manufacturing facility in Gilbert, Arizona. The production process incorporates a unique, assembly line system consisting of 18 different work stations ranging from panel integration and payload testing to full satellite integration, solar array installations and alignment checks. Each satellite features more than 5,000 individual parts assembled, culminating in one hundred thousand hours of workmanship by hundreds of engineers. A total of 81 satellites are scheduled to roll off of this assembly line, with 66 serving as the operational satellites to replace the existing Iridium® network, and the remainder serving as ground and on-orbit spares.
Following assembly and integration, the first satellites underwent a series of tests to ensure the vehicles met design specifications, as well as production tests to verify the quality of the manufacturing process. Some of those tests included vibration and acoustic testing, which simulated the movement and sound pressures experienced during the launch, while thermal vacuum tests created the temperature extremes the satellites will face while in orbit. These tests allowed the engineers to confirm that the satellites would withstand the launch and operate successfully when deployed.
“The scale and complexity of the Iridium NEXT constellation is unprecedented in the satellite community outside of Iridium, requiring that the engineers balance delivering high-quality satellites designed for high-rate manufacturing, with a unique fully processed payload while maintaining an efficient schedule,” said Bertrand Maureau, executive vice president of telecommunication at Thales Alenia Space. “We’re thrilled to ship the first batch of Iridium NEXT satellites, as they represent the culmination of the team consortium work including worldwide partners and all the main Thales Alenia Space entities.”
Along with measuring the quality of the satellite production, the testing phases helped validate that the assembly line is fully qualified to move to high-rate production. During the last three months, the number of assembly, integration and testing engineers working on Iridium NEXT has doubled at Orbital ATK’s facility. With the vast resources and aerospace engineering talent in the Phoenix area, the team plans on adding another 30 engineers as production increases to complete more than five satellites per month.
“The Iridium NEXT production process features a unique assembly-line approach inspired by the production of Iridium’s initial constellation which launched over 19 years ago,” said Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Group. “While certain stations require more hours of efforts than others, each represents a critical step toward delivering a fully functioning Iridium NEXT satellite. Now that we have standardized the entire process, we are excited to ramp up the production rate to meet Iridium’s needs and support the successful completion of a truly transformative program.”
The first two completed Iridium NEXT satellites are being shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base for processing by Iridium’s launch partner, SpaceX. As the remaining eight first-launch satellites are completed, they will also be shipped two at a time to the launch site. While the satellites will be ready by August, the earliest launch date available to Iridium from SpaceX and Vandenberg Air Force Base is September 12th. During processing, Orbital ATK is responsible for fueling the satellites, while also performing software validation and testing to ensure the satellites integrate properly with the SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. The Iridium NEXT satellites represent SpaceX’s heaviest payload to date.
All Iridium NEXT satellites are scheduled for launch by late 2017. Starting in 2018, the Iridium NEXT constellation will enable Aireon’s satellite-based system to provide global aircraft surveillance in real time. Iridium and SpaceX have partnered for a series of seven launches, with ten Iridium NEXT satellites deployed at a time.