Arizona Technology and Innovation: Iridium NEXT

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The Iridium satellite network provides global satellite phone service, and that system is being improved with Iridium NEXT, a $3 billion global satellite constellation that will add more bandwidth, with coverage over 100 percent of the earth’s surface. The satellites will be built in Gilbert at the Orbital Sciences plant. Iridium CEO Matt Desch will tell us more.

Ted Simons: Here to talk about all this and explain it all is iridium CEO Matt Desh. Welcome.

Matt Desch: Thanks.

Ted Simons: The iridium project. Give us a basic understanding of what we're talking about.

Matt Desch: A lot of people in the Phoenix area know with it because we have a history going back 25, 30 years when Motorola in this region put together the commercially largest satellite system ever built. Launched it in record time in the '90s. The satellite network is a little over 19 years old when it was first launched May 5, 191997, one of the largest bankruptcies in history. The company started in 2000 and has been in operation since that time. Now we're going to replace all that. We're going to replace it and that's what's going on.

Ted Simons: I think we have shots of satellites being built there in Gilbert. Talk to us, this piece of machinery, what are we looking at here?

Matt Desch: It really is an amazing accomplishment. We started on this over seven years ago. It's one of the largest aerospace projects in the world. Over -- well, $3 billion to replace 66 satellites in orbit with 66 new satellites that are more powerful and have more capabilities. It's primed by a French company but they have subcontracted to orbital AtK, in Gilbert, to test all the satellites. All the parts are coming in, like 5,000 of them, getting assembled, put into shipping crates, sent to SpaceX in California to be lifted into orbit over coming months.

Ted Simons: SpaceX in California. Wasn't there supposed to be a Russian connection as well? What happened to that?

Matt Desch: We launch 72 satellites, so 66 plus some spares. The first two were going on a NEPER rocket, unfortunately a Ukrainian-Russian consortium. That hasn't worked out very well so we put that down the line F. that ever works itself out we'll come back to them. For now the predominant will be on SpaceX. We'll be the heaviest payload SpaceX has put into orbit. Our first launch will be September 12 on top of a falcon 9 rocket out of Vandenberg Air Force base. Ten rockets delivered into space. We'll do that six more times after that for a total of 7 be 0 satellites. We'll launch the remainder later.

Ted Simons: If they are replacing older statistics, what happens to the older statistics?

Matt Desch: We're going to deorbit them at the right time. We're a lower orbiting satellite, unique in that all the satellites are interconnected in space. It's still a modern marvel. My hat's off to the many engineers in the Phoenix area who made it happen. New satellites go into place we locate them nearby to another satellite. We drop the links to the old satellite, put them into the new, move the old satellites out of the way. We're only about 485 miles positive the -- above the planet, so very close to earth. When we feel like it's times, probably in 2017, 2018, we'll use all the fuel and slow that old satellite down until it catches in the satellite. It will burn up over the course of a couple months. They are small satellites. They really are -- they are the size of nothing that would reenter through the atmosphere. It will be an exciting time to watch the skies to see these things happen.

Ted Simons: This will be used mostly for phone service or -- what other types of activities will be involved?

Matt Desch: Our business has evolved a lot. We were the original satellite phone company, big phones, expensive. Our business has moved to data so we now are tracking things. Tracking Wal-Mart containers and oil and gas pipelines. We're put into small devices that go into airplanes and ships. We're used by the military, that's about 20% of our business for forces overseas. All that stays the same. The new satellites do the same but perform it better. We're bringing broadband. One of the more interesting additions is a new payload to track aircraft with Malaysia 370, nobody knew where it was, our satellites will be able to know the location of every airplane in the world in real time with no additional equipment on the airplane because what they broadcast out to pick up on the ground when they are away from ground transmitters we'll pick them up from above and relay that oair traffic control. It helps provide more direct routes, lower fuel costs, it really has a lot of benefits to the airlines and the traveling public so it's a brand new service that will fly in tandem with our communication service.

Ted Simons: That's very interesting. This would be up and operational in --

Matt Desch: We are -- our first launch is in September. There will be six more launches to about the third quarter, 2017, a whole network will be replaced by the end of 2017. This is all happening over 18 months. It's going to be very busy with a lot of satellites and rockets moving in and out. It's all happening from this area in terms of it coming together here in this area and going into space.

Ted Simons: With it all happening in this area what kind of economic impact -- what does this cost?

Matt Desch: It's a $3 billion program. I believe orbital is certainly getting a nice chunk of that. My offices, we probably have 250 plus employees in the Tempe-Chandler area. When you add in the Boeing team that operates our satellites in Chandler it's more than that, really. Orbital has a couple hundred employees putting these satellites together and we have technical partners whether it's general dynamics or Honeywell, so this is an area rich in aerospace talent. It's a hot bed and frankly I doubt many realize that the world's largest commercial satellite system is all going -- has been built here over the last couple years and it's all going into space from here.

Ted Simons: If they didn't know it before, they know it now. Thanks for being here.

Matt Desch: Thanks, Ted.

Matt Desch: CEO of Iridium

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