SpaceX completed a major upgrade to a key telecommunications satellite network on Friday after two years of launches.
A Falcon 9 rocket built by Elon Musk’s space venture launched the final ten satellites of a 75-piece constellation for Iridium (IRDM), a satellite operator, just after 7:30 am from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
The second-generation satellite network, dubbed Iridium NEXT, aims to offer improved satellite-based internet and phone services as well as marine and air traffic monitoring.
Shortly after launch Friday, Iridium confirmed that all 10 new satellites had “successfully communicated” with ground systems. Now the company is preparing for additional tests.
“We’re not quite across the finish line yet, as there is still some work to do to put these satellites into operation,” Iridium CEO Matt Desch said in a statement. “Once that’s complete, our future will be in place. I’m just incredibly proud of our team right now.“
Iridium stock jumped nearly 6% Friday.
Separately, SpaceX said it once again recovered its booster during Friday’s mission. SpaceX pioneered the maneuver of guiding first-stage rocket boosters back to Earth so they can be reused and reduce launch costs.
It was the first rocket landing for SpaceX since a December 5 mishap in which the booster experienced a technical issue, tipped off a sea-faring platform, and dove into the ocean. The failed landing attempt was the first for a Falcon 9 booster since 2016.
Friday’s launch concluded a decade-long partnership between SpaceX and Iridium, a key customer.
Iridium selected SpaceX in March 2010 to be the sole launch partner for the Iridium NEXT. 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.
The $3 billion Iridium NEXT network will replace the aging constellation and promises quicker connections.
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.