Iridium Communications announced Thursday that the first installment of its next-generation satellite communications network will be launched into low-Earth orbit by Hawthorne-based SpaceX on Dec. 16.
This would be Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s first trip to outer space since one of its Falcon 9 rockets blew up during a Sept. 1 test launch at Cape Canaveral just days before it was set to deliver communications satellites worth $195 million into orbit.
Before the launch is sanctioned, the Federal Aviation Administration first must approve the fixes to the problem that caused the explosion that destroyed the rocket and its payload. SpaceX officials, therefore, declined to confirm the tentative date; however, federal officials have been working alongside the company’s accident investigation team since the anomaly occurred.
SpaceX hasn’t disclosed the exact cause of the accident but said it likely happened in “one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels inside the LOX tank,” according to a statement. Helium used to propel the rocket was being loaded when one of the highly pressurized holding vessels failed, company officials said.
The accident — the second major one in SpaceX’s launch history — delayed the company’s extensive backlog of customers awaiting space transport services worth more than $10 billion. The last time SpaceX made a space delivery was on Aug. 14.
The Dec. 16 launch is set to occur at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, according to Iridium officials. The Virginia-based communications company has the largest fleet of global commercial satellites in space, and has been working for years on replacing its entire fleet with upgraded satellites for increased connectivity.
This mission is scheduled to deliver the first 10 of 70 satellites that are set to be replaced by 2018, said Iridium spokeswoman Diane Hockenberry.
“We are going to replace all those satellites with 70 new ones in the largest tech refresh ever in space,” Hockenberry said. “It requires a delicate balance to bring a new satellite moving in space at 17,000 mph next to our current satellite.”
Iridium has six additional missions planned to complete the job. When finished, the new satellite constellation will offer faster broadband data speeds of up to 1.4 megabits per second and require smaller on-the-ground antennas.
“We offer connectivity where cellular can’t,” Hockenberry said. “We also offer machine-to-machine and Internet-of-Things connectivity.”
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