Iridium Waits With Bated Breath on SpaceX Launch

These must be nervy times for satellite communications company Iridium, which will become SpaceX's "first return-to-flight launch customer" just a few days from now.

SpaceX yesterday said it was planning a return to the launch pad on January 8 following an investigation into the explosion that destroyed one of its rockets, and the satellite it was carrying, in September last year. (See SpaceX Explosion Blows Hole in Facebook's Africa Plans.)

The space exploration company, founded and run by US billionaire Elon Musk, will on Sunday launch a rocket carrying next-generation satellites for Iridium, which has been waiting to deploy the latest equipment since the September setback.

That accident, which occurred on take-off, destroyed the Amos-6 satellite that would have been used by social networking giant Facebook to provide low-cost Internet connectivity in parts of Africa.

Iridium Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: IRDM) had previously named December 16 as the launch date for its NEXT satellite constellation, but the timing appears to have slipped as the investigation into the Amos-6 explosion continued.

That SpaceX's upcoming launch proves a success is absolutely critical: Following the Amos-6 accident, another failure could destroy any confidence in SpaceX and force the company to put some of its more ambitious schemes on ice.

It would also be a huge setback for companies that rely on satellite communications for Internet connectivity. Iridium's satellites are used to support organizations in a range of industries, and Iridium bosses have previously described the NEXT project as one of the largest "tech upgrades" in history.

In total, it will consist of seven SpaceX launches over the next year, with each rocket carrying ten satellites of a planned 70-satellite constellation.

Among other things, Iridium needs the next-generation satellites to provide a new service platform called Certus, which is designed primarily to boost the connection speeds it can support. Assuming all goes well, Certus is set for commercial introduction early this year.

The rollout of gigabit broadband access networks is spreading. Find out what's happening where in our dedicated Gigabit Cities content channel here on Light Reading.

Commenting on the Amos-6 explosion back in September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the satellite would have been able to provide connectivity "to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the [African] continent."

At the time, Zuckerberg had also hinted that Facebook would focus R&D efforts on alternatives to satellite technology, including its Aquila solar-powered drone, following the Amos-6 explosion.

Shedding light on its investigation into that disaster, SpaceX says it has spent the past four months working with organizations including the Federal Aviation Administration, the US Air Force, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board to determine the causes of the explosion.

The accident occurred, says the company, because of an accumulation of oxygen in some of the rocket equipment. A number of steps have been taken to prevent oxygen from building up in this way during future launches, according to SpaceX's statement.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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