Successful SpaceX Launch of Iridium-8 Has Implications for Every Canadian

Successful launch of the Iridium-8 mission by SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX.

SpaceX’s first launch of the year, the Iridium-8 mission, has big implications for air traffic worldwide – including in Canada.

A Falcon 9 rocket successfully deployed 10 Iridium satellites into orbit, before coming back to Earth and sticking the landing. With the excitement of launch now past, it’s up to Iridium to get these satellites ready for operations on time to complete their Iridium NEXT constellation.

Iridium focused in-part on the revenue potential in a call with media last week. “It means finally realizing the dream that the founders of this system had more than 30 years ago. It means our network will finally achieve the financial independence and security that makes a satellite operator mature,” said CEO Matthew Desch.

Iridium went bankrupt in 1999 in an era when its then-new satellite network was criticized as being slow and archaic, but 20 years later the potential of NEXT is already attracting the attention of other companies. Iridium recently signed deals with Rolls Royce and Amazon Web Services, among others.

Iridium Next satellite
Iridium NEXT satellite. Credit. Iridium.

NEXT will replace Iridium’s current fleet of satellites, which the company is deorbiting in an effort to keep low Earth orbit clear for future generations. While Iridium flare-watchers will be disappointed to see these satellites disappear, NEXT has a huge benefit for aviation. NEXT carries a payload from Aireon, which can receive positional data from travelling aircraft all over the world.

Aireon, a U.S. company, has several partners and owners. The largest partner and owner is NAV Canada.

Airplanes generally navigate using ground-based radar systems that were first implemented in the 1930s. While this network of radars does the job in populated zones, they can’t be installed on water or in remote areas. This means that roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface does not have accurate tracking of aircraft – something that for safety reasons, regulators want to change.

The solution is implementing a new aircraft standard called ADS-B. The project involves many engineering steps, but key for Iridium is the global aviation authority initiative to install positional receivers on all aircraft to provide accurate locations at least every 15 minutes, anywhere in the world. Already, Qatar Airways and Bangkok Airways have contracts with Iridium to hook up with its system.

This information will obviously be useful in an emergency, reducing the incidence of lost aircraft such as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370; its 2014 crash location was never found. But even in normal operations, knowing the precise location of aircraft will lead to other benefits – reducing pilot response time to weather events, reducing the required mileage separation gaps between aircraft, and addressing navigational errors before they become large issues.

Aireon concept overview

Greenhouse gases will also be reduced because aircraft will fly more direct paths; the North Atlantic alone will see $125 million U.S. saved in fuel each year through more efficient flight trajectories, said Don Thoma, president and chief executive of Aireon.

While NEXT is complete and Aireon is ready to be launched, stock prices at Iridium have fluctuated wildly in the past month – in part due to volatility in the larger market. December saw the stock price peak at nearly $24 USD per share, its highest price by far in the past year. The price, however, plunged to $17 USD per share late in the month and yesterday (Jan. 11) it stands at roughly $21.

“In space programs, just like in building anything substantial, all the press and excitement seems to be focused on the announcement and intent,” Desch said, adding that the public may barely notice a project’s implementation coming to fruition. At Iridum, though, “it is a huge deal.”

The company’s next major project is Iridium Certus, which aims to break an industry monopoly in the maritime market for satellite broadband. It also will be used for the Internet of Things, business operations, safety services and more. Commercial service is expected later this year.

Relay of the Iridium-8 launch and satellite deployment

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Canadian space and science reporter, researcher and consultant. I also am pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of North Dakota.