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Iridium Lloyd's satellite constellations
Globalstar | ICO | Iridium | Orbcomm | Teledesic

View of the active Iridium constellation
Full active Iridium constellation as modelled in SaVi

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Transcript of Iridium Satellite LLC conference call (December 2000)
Overview of Iridium Satellite plans (news.com, 12 December 2000)

deorbiting appeared almost certain - but it's never too late to save Iridium.

A guide to useful, useless, official and unofficial Iridium websites

User terminal information:

Official Iridium websites include:

Related sites include:

third-party Iridium sites include:

There are pages in other languages whose authors track Iridium: in Russian and in Spanish.

Iridium was originally developed by Motorola. Iridium LLC filed for bankruptcy protection, and was reborn as Iridium Satellite.

The Iridium constellation was originally planned to have 77 active satellites, and named after the element with 77 electrons by a Motorola employee (count the electron shells to get 77 when the atom is not bonded. Iridium also has an atomic number of 77 resulting from its 77 protons; the idea of electrons orbiting the nucleus being analogous to satellites orbiting the earth is tenuous, thanks to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.)

Iridium was later redesigned to need fewer satellites - the 66 active satellites of today. (We're not counting in-orbit or ground spares.) But its name hasn't been changed to Dysprosium, the element with 66 protons and often 66 surrounding electrons whose root means 'bad approach'...

Iridium LLC filed with the FCC for the followup project - a 96-satellite system called MacroCell. This would have competed with Globalstar's GS-2 system of 64 satellites - if they got built. MacroCell might be going by the name Iridium Next or INX these days, but you're unlikely to see it mentioned anywhere outside old FCC filings.

Motorola donated an Iridium satellite to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. It was apparently hung outside their Star Wars exhibit a long, long time ago, but now hangs in the aptly-named Beyond the Limits gallery.

Original Iridium LLC investor information

Deorbiting planned (BBC News, 21 March 2000)

Iridium filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Friday 13 August 1999. Another CFO has resigned and they're undergoing restructuring (Wired News)
The bankruptcy filings are available in pdf - enter Last Name Iridium. You'll probably need javascript enabled.

Iridium's performance deadline extension was 31 May 1999, but they gained an extension to the end of June and Motorola was to make a decision in July, which in essence was 'we support provided everyone else does'.

Iridium's CEO has resigned. Their CFO announced plans to leave earlier. This is the first class action lawsuit over alleged financial irregularities. These people have class action lawsuits against a large number of firms, including an action against Orbital Sciences, but this case looks higher-profile. Other class-action lawsuits have since been filed in the wake of Iridium's quarterly results. (April 1999)

If you want idle financial speculation, please see either this discussion of the 1997 IPO, this general discussion, or Motley Fool. I'm not able to give an expert assessment on the level of financial knowledge displayed in those discussions, but I do hope it's higher than the general level of engineering knowledge I've seen displayed.


Collision 500 Miles Above The Earth (Evan Hessel, Forbes, 11 February 2009)
Debris Spews Into Space in Collision of Satellites (William Broad, New York Times, 11 February 2009)


An Iridium Story of Never Say Die (Max Jarman, The Arizona Republic, 1 February 2009)
The return of Iridium (Forbes, 30 November 2001)
Good overview of Iridium from the New York Times (11 April 2000)

Wired summarises two weeks with an Iridium handset. (May 1999)

Summary in French of five days of using an Iridium phone with a GSM card. (5 May 1999)

How Iridium was doing is discussed in the transcript of a conference call (January 1999)

A review of the Iridium pager, which includes a report of a 2% connect rate for the Iridium phone. (ZDNet, 15 February 1999)

Iridium has announced that it had 3,000 customers at the end of 1998. Since it had 2,000 betatesters in September 1998, it was off to a slow start.

In-aeroplane telephony is seen as a market, so Iridium was to buy Claircom. That deal has since been called off. (23 June 1999)

Paging service was launched on 16 November 1998.

Voice service was due to begin on 23 September 1998, but that was delayed to November 1st to allow more time for testing. (The Leonid meteor shower hit November 17th, but had no major effect.)

Iridium had two thousand beta-testers, apparently. Iridium's then Chief Financial Officer stated that calls may not be charged for immediately if the system is not ready.

Apparently Iridium coverage was expected to be disabled and unavailable over Cuba, thanks to the US State Department. This has resulted in a marketing opportunity for ICO. One world (Cuba and coverage failures excepted), one phone. Where else will Iridium coverage be disabled? Given the speed of satellite motion, how accurate would the disabling of service be? Enquiring minds want to know!

Europe wants to wiretap Iridium, apparently. Complying with the world's governments is necessary for service; there's no end-to-end cryptography on calls.

Dual-mode phones

I was phoned from an Iridium handset. (24 November 1998) The day before, the Washington Post played with an Iridium handset, grumbling about dropped calls and voice quality. (23 November 1998)

Originally suggested US retail prices of $3,295 for a phone (with GSM or CDMA capability) and $695 for a pager.

"If we had a campaign that featured our product, we'd lose," John Windolph, Iridium LLC marketing director and protein shake drinker, is quoted as saying. (Quentin Hardy, To Sell a Phone, Iridium Plays To Fears of Being Out of Touch, Wall Street Journal, 4 June 1998, Wired 6.05)

The first review of an Iridium phone that I saw turned out to be in Norwegian; Scandinavians were early adopters of mobile phones. Try Norwegian articles discussing Iridium. (Dagens Telecom)


Official information

You could listen to recorded updates on the status of the Iridium launches by calling either 1-888-952-8624 (US, toll-free) or 00-1-202-452-8624 (outside US). The Boeing Delta Launch hotline is on 1-714-896-4770.

Here's an independent summary of the launches from Encyclopedia Astronautica.

Viewing the constellation

The Iridium satellites are visible to observers, sometimes spectacularly so - here's an observation page and calculated flare predictions. Here is an excellent photograph of an Iridium flare, and a number of more recent flare shots. The Wahington Post provides an interview giving background. Sky and Telescope has an article on observing Iridium flares.

Orbital and constellation status

Failed Iridium satellites deorbit (November 1999).

If you want to track the satellites using the two-line element set format, here's a recent NORAD two-line element set for Iridium.

There's a regularly-updated downloadable TLE set from NORAD via NASA's OIG - log into their archive to get historical information. Orbitessera (mirror) may also be useful.

Mike McCants tracks the status of the constellations. As does Rod Sladen.

(The IRIDIUM 78 designation wasn't used, and that satellite was launched as IRIDIUM 03 instead. They're backfilling and reusing numbers, which makes comparing TLEs from different epochs and counting satellites a bit tricky.)

Launch history

Launch history from Astronautix.

Seventh replacements

Two satellites launched on Eurockot on 20 June 2002. This followed a launch of two mass frequency simulators on Eurockot in September 2001.

Sixth replacements

The launch of five satellites on 11 February 2002 was delayed due to strong winds.

Fifth replacements

Two replacement Iridium satellites, on a Long March rocket, were launched on Saturday 12 June 1999 from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in China, courtesy of the China Great Wall Industry Corporation.

Fourth replacements

Two Iridium satellites aboard a Long March 2C from Shanxi Province, launched on Saturday 19 December.

Third replacements

Five Iridium satellites were launched on a Delta II on Friday 6 November 1998. One is a replacement; the other four provide in-orbit spares.

Second replacements

Five Iridium satellites were launched on a Boeing Delta II from Vandenberg on Tuesday 8 September 1998. They were originally planned to launch on Friday 4 September, but that was rescheduled. The launch fills in gaps in orbital planes. The launch was delayed after a recent Delta III failure

First replacements

A Long March launch, originally scheduled for late July, was to provide two replacement satellites to replace failures. However, that launch was delayed, and launched 19 August. There are now seven in-orbit failures, and a recent failure and change in target plane prompted the delay.

Doubts raised over September 23rd start of service (Wired News, 24 July 1998)

Fifteenth launch to full constellations

5 failures out of 72 satellites launched. (Satellites that almost work, Red Herring, 22 May 1998)

The fourteenth launch was a Chinese Long March, with two satellites, on 2 May and received very little publicity. (Washington Post article) That makes this Delta the fifteenth launch; it was scheduled for May 15th after delays, and finally launched on 17 May. Iridium now has the full constellation complement in orbit, ready for launch of service in September, barring failures.

The Delta launch was delayed while engineers investigate vapour found in the second stage during fuelling. But we're told that it won't delay the September service launch (Wired News, 28 April 1998)

Iridium heads into home stretch (Wired News, 24 April 1998)

Eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth launches

A launch was due on a Russian Proton rocket from Kazakhstan, 1st or 2nd of April. That launch eventually took place on April 7th from Baikonur Cosmodrome.

The constellation is nearing completion; Iridium say they're 80% deployed. (Wired News) No, 90% deployed (a later Iridium press release) - there was a Chinese Long March launch of two satellites on 25 March that received very little media coverage.

The eleventh launch was on a Delta from Vandenberg on 10:02 pm PST, March 29 1998.

Tenth launch

The tenth launch was scheduled to be five satellites on a Boeing Delta II from Vandenberg on 31 January. Delays were expected while rocket problems were investigated. The launch was then delayed due to strong winds at high altitude, and finally launched on Wednesday February 18 1998.

Ninth launch

Five satellites were launched on a Delta II from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 5:16 am Pacific Standard Time on Saturday the 20th of December.

Eighth launch

Two Iridium satellites were launched aboard a Great Wall Long March 2C/SD rocket from Taiyuan at 7:16 GMT, December 8 1997. This was the first of three planned Chinese launches; a test launch with two dummy satellites had already taken place.

Seventh launch

Another five satellites are launched on November 9th aboard the 250th Delta launch vehicle.

Sixth launch

A Delta II launch with five satellites on board was scheduled for 6pm PDT on September 26th, and launched smoothly.

Fifth launch

The second Russian Proton launch on Sunday September 14th 1997 went smoothly.

On 4 September the first east-west intersatellite communications link, between satellites in different orbital planes (SV6 and SV10), was set up and tested with successful results. True space networking!

Two dummy satellites were launched on Long March as a test on 1 September 1997. (You'll see them mentioned as IRIDIUM MFS (mass frequency simulator) in the three-line element set for Iridium, where IRIDIUM 01 and 02 are missing.)

Fourth launch

Five more satellites were launched on 20 August 1997, bringing the total in orbit and operational to 21. The launch was originally planned for Sunday August 17th, but delayed due to a software problem until Monday evening, and later delayed by weather conditions.

Third launch

Motorola has now established communications with the Iridium system. The third Iridium launch of five more satellites aboard a Delta II for Vandenberg took place on Wednesday, 9 July 1997. They've since lost contact with one of the satellites.

Second launch

The second Iridium launch of seven satellites on a Russian Proton on 18 June 1997 has gone smoothly, bringing the number of satellites launched so far to twelve.

First launch

Successful in May 1997
After a number of delays, the first launch of five satellites took place on 5 May 1997, after an alarm aborted launch on 4 May, and earlier wind delays. The first launch used more fuel than expected during second-stage burn. I'm told that the rocket ran out of fuel just before releasing the fifth satellite, which was put into a less-than-optimal orbit corrected by using onboard station-keeping fuel.
Attempts and delays in January 1997
Although the first three Iridium satellites were originally supposed to launch in November 1996, the launch was delayed until January. The McDonnell Douglas Delta II carrying them was due to launch at 5:35am, Pacific Standard Time (PST) on Thursday January 9th 1997, but the vehicle destruct microwave communications were "red" until the launch window closed. The launch was delayed until at least the 19th of January, as cork thermal protection was was found to have debonded in places on the first stage and needed to be repaired. Before that planned launch could take place, a McDonnell-Douglas Delta II, similar to the one ready to launch the first Iridium satellites and carrying a new GPS satellite, exploded after launch on the morning of Friday 17th January. (CNN News with Quicktime movie, Wired News.

All other Delta II launches were grounded pending the inquiry results, and the launch was delayed indefinitely. However, the planned Russian Proton launches were unaffected by this. It's since been reported by the US Air Force that a split in the casing of one of nine solid rocket motors caused the accident.

Launch rescheduled to Saturday 10th (Satellite Journal International)

General information

Project partners and technologies

Planned Iridium coverage

Every circle in the cylindrical projection below is the coverage area, or footprint, of an Iridium satellite flying overhead at the centre of the circle and looking down for signals. The earth is completely covered.

That's a lot of satellites. More than most of its competitors. 66 operational for full global coverage, in fact. But Teledesic planned more...

earth coverage by Iridium
Iridium's satellite footprints at a moment in time, generated by SaVi
The footprints and the seam move over the earth
cylindrical projection

You can't just go out and pawn a constellation

- Raymond Leopold, pawnbroker.

Lloyd Wood (L.Wood@society.surrey.ac.uk)
this page last updated 12 February 2009