A Falcon 9 rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on Friday served as the grand finale for one of the largest tech upgrades in space history, including revolutionary change to the global air-traffic surveillance system.
The Space Exploration Technologies rocket blasted off into mostly clear skies at 7:31 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-4 on South Base en route to place 10 Iridium Next satellites into orbit.
Long low rumbles were heard in Santa Maria and Goleta as the rocket climbed away from the Central Coast.
Delivery of the satellites to create a second-generation communication constellation finished more 1 hour and 12 minutes after blastoff.
With all 10 commercial satellites successfully released, Iridium Next will have 75 spacecraft in orbit, with 66 of those used for the constellation and the others serving as in-orbit spares.
The first-stage booster used Friday previously launched in September from Florida, and SpaceX successfully landed the booster on the droneship “Just Read the Instructions.” Images revealed the booster sitting in the middle of the bull’s-eye painted on the ship.
From the start, SpaceX has touted the reusability of its key components in an effort to reduce the cost and time it takes to put payloads in space.
But the primary purpose of the rocket launch involved completing the $3 billion Iridium Next constellation to provide voice and data communication anywhere on the globe.
“There are few words to describe what it feels like to complete a vision started many years ago when I joined the company and what it means for Iridium and our future,” said Iridium CEO Matt Desch. “Our gratitude to SpaceX for helping bring this new generation of satellites to orbit, so flawlessly every time is beyond words.
“However, for Iridium, we’re not quite across the finish line yet, as there is still some work to do to put these satellites into operation. Once that’s complete, our future will be in place. I’m just incredibly proud of our team right now.”
In teleconference with reporters last week, Desch said the final launch means the start of a busy time for Iridium, which plans to introduce its broadband service, branded as Iridium Certus.
“The name Certus is actually Latin and it means reliable, determined, sure and certain, all adjectives that we feel will define Iridium and our new unique broadband service,” Desch said.
The company spent 2018 testing and readying Iridium Certus with data trials nearly complete, he added.
Some service providers have started making Iridium Certus available to maritime customers before it officially begins.
Iridium Next also will lead to fundamental changes in the air traffic surveillance system through Aireon, which aims to fix a lack of coverage since ground-based radars can’t tracks airplanes as they travel over the oceans.
“That’s approximately 70 percent of global airspace that has this challenge and lacks any real time surveillance,” Aireon CEO Don Thoma said. “This airspace is made up mostly of oceans and remote areas where ground infrastructure is either impractical or impossible.
“To many this is shocking to hear, but it’s unfortunately true,” Thoma added. “This lack of surveillance exists because the industry is still relying one ground-based radar systems that were first invested back in hte 1930s.”
An upgraded air traffic surveillance system has many of the same limitations once planes fly over the ocean, however.
“This was the driving reason behind the creation of Aireon,” Thoma added. “It has been clear that a complete and truly global aircraft surveillance system is a must-have not only for the efficiency of air traffic management but for the safety of everyone traveling by plane.”
To support global air traffic surveillance Aireon involved placing the same receivers as the ground-based system uses, but installing those on Iridium satellites to pick up automatic position messages showing plane locations.
“With a complete Iridium Next constellation, Aieron will have a real time air traffic surveillance data comparable to that of ground systems, but for the entire planet, including over the oceans and remote areas where it never existed before,” Thoma said.
Most planes have the receivers for the Aireon system and the technology will be included in new aircraft at the urging of U.S. and European regulators.
“Although the completion of Iridium Next marks an important end of the chapter for Iridium it is really just the start of a journey for Aireon,” Thoma added.
While the Falcon mission secured the first launch of 2019 from Vandenberg, the second is set to be a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket and its top-secret cargo for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Liftoff of that mission reportedly will occur later this month.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.