SpaceX launches final batch of next-generation satellites

Project hopes to improve satellite communications

Associated Press

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. - A project aimed at improving satellite communications with Earth is one launch away from completion.

On Friday, a Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk's SpaceX is schedule to fly the final ten satellites of a 75-piece constellation for Iridium (IRDM), a satellite operator. Liftoff is slated for 7:31 am PT, or 10:31 am ET. from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The second-generation Iridium network will aim to offer quicker satellite-based internet and phone services to the ground. It'll also beef up air and maritime traffic control capabilities, which could help eliminate "black zones" where commercial airplanes can't be tracked.

Iridium made its first global communications network with the launch of a $5 billion satellite constellation a couple decades ago. But the service, which was initially intended to bring satellite phones to the mass market, proved too expensive for the average consumer. Iridum declared bankruptcy in 1999.

But the company emerged from Chapter 11 with new owners and a revamped its business plan. Satellite phone coverage remains a key form of communication for disaster zones and Earth's most remote corners.

The $3 billion Iridium NEXT will replace the aging constellation and promises quicker connections.

The final Iridium NEXT launch on Friday will conclude a decade-long partnership between SpaceX and Iridium.

The company selected SpaceX in Mach 2010 to be the sole launch partner for the project. The companies signed a contract, worth $448 million, for seven launches. An eighth launch, for which SpaceX was paid $61.9 million, was added later.

SpaceX launched the first group of Iridium NEXT satellites on January 14, 2017, and has delivered a batch of Iridium satellites into orbit every few months since then.

Iridium CEO Matt Desch told reporters this week that the 65 next-generation satellites already in orbit are "happy and healthy," according to Spaceflight Now.

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