Spaceflight Now: Breaking News

Pioneering Iridium satellite system reaches dead end

Posted: March 18, 2000

  Iridium satellite
An artist's concept of an Iridium satellite orbiting the Earth. Photo: Iridium
The space-based Iridium global cellular telephone system is bound for a fiery destruction in Earth's atmosphere after the bankrupt company failed Friday to find a suitable buyer.

The company said its armada of 66 primary satellites would begin deorbiting in the next few weeks, a $50 million process that could take two years to complete. Twenty-two more Iridium satellites are also in space serving as spares or decommissioned failures.

"I am deeply saddened by this outcome," Iridium chief operating officer Randy Brouckman said in a statement. "I particularly regret the impact this will have on our customers. Iridium achieved significant milestones, and I want to thank the more than 160 countries that licensed the service."

Iridium said it would shut off service at 11:59 p.m. EST on Friday (0459 GMT Saturday) and begin liquidating assets of the $5 billion system.

Motorola -- responsible for designing and building the Iridium spacecraft and arranging the launches -- will maintain the satellite system for a limited period of time while the deorbiting plan is finalized.

Iridium constellation
An artist's concept of the Iridium constellation. Photo: Iridium

"During this period, we also will continue to work with subscribers in remote locations to obtain alternative communications," Motorola said in a statement. "However, the continuation of limited Iridium service during this time will depend on whether the individual gateway companies, which are separate operating companies, remain open."

Iridium, which launched its system on November 1, 1998, had about 55,000 customers around the world. Commercial service allowed subscribers to use a hand-held phone and pager for voice, messaging, fax and data transmissions from virtually anywhere in the world.

The Motorola statement went on to say, "Motorola is extremely disappointed that Iridium LLC has not succeeded in its effort to emerge from voluntary bankruptcy. Motorola and other Iridium investors have worked very hard to support Iridium LLC's efforts to reorganize and continue operating the business. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

"Iridium is an example of a proven, pioneering technology. Many of our finest people worked together worldwide to implement a global communications system that was, from a technology standpoint, an extraordinary achievement."

  Delta 2 launch
A Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off with five Iridium satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Photo: Boeing
Iridium began deploying its satellite fleet in May 1997. Over the following 12 months, nine Boeing Delta, three Russian Proton and three Chinese Long March rockets launched the full constellation of 72 primary and backup satellites.

The final launch occurred last June 11, sending additional craft to replace ones that had malfunctioned.

Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space built the satellite platforms and said the craft would operate up to eight years. The Iridium constellation is divided into six groups of satellites circling 421 miles above Earth.

But the company lapsed into bankruptcy protection in August 1999 due to disappointing sales of its phones and service. A phone costed about $3000 and airtime minutes were about $7. Service quality was also called "erratic."

A $600 million deal by Craig McCaw to buy Iridium fell through earlier this month, signaling the end of the company.

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