Orbital Sciences Corp. in Gilbert announced an agreement to build 81 spacecrafts for an international satellite company as part of an approximately $3 billion project.
Iridium Communications Inc. has contracted with Orbital to build 66 operational spacecraft, six on-orbit squares and nine ground-backup space craft as part of the Iridium NEXT program. Senior Program Director Jason Yocum said the Gilbert facility will build and test the various crafts before shipping them out to other locations for launch, which is expected to begin in 2015.
At full operation, Orbital will build three to four satellites per month, with a goal of having them all in space by 2017. Yocum said Orbital will hire somewhere between 30 to 40 employees to complete the project in Gilbert.
Iridium Chief Operating Officer Scott Smith said the satellites will form a constellation to replace one that’s been in use for more than 16 years. The new constellation, he said, will increase the company’s broadband capabilities and expand its cellular service across the world.
“People don’t realize 90 percent of our globe doesn’t have cell service,” Smith said.
Gilbert Mayor John Lewis said the Iridium Next program is one of the most significant commercial space projects in the world, one that connects Gilbert to the rest of the world. He also compared the launch of the project to the most prominent moment in American aeronautical history.
“It does feel like it’s a time we can say it’s another giant leap for mankind,” he said.
Yocum said the satellites for the Iridium NEXT program are built to last for a little more than 12 years, but he anticipates the new constellation can hit 15 years of service. The optimistic projection is tied to the current constellation that has crossed the 16-year threshold even though the components were built to last for seven years.
While some of the satellites currently in orbit will remain there as backups, Yocum said the weaker ones will reenter the atmosphere and burn up in lieu of remaining in space.
“We try to be good custodians,” Yocum said.
Besides the Iridium NEXT program, Orbital is continuing work on the OCO-2 satellite for NASA. The satellite, which Orbital expects to complete in April, was commissioned to measure the planet’s CO2 levels and will become the first space-based device to do so.
OCO-2 Science Team Leader David Crisp said CO2 is critical to sustain life on earth and is produced in natural means like exhaling. But the levels, he said, have increased significantly since the dawn of the industrial age due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, and NASA isn’t quite sure where all of the emissions end up.
“Only about half of the carbon dioxide we put in the air every year stays there; the rest is going back into the earth,” he said.
He added much of the CO2 goes back into the ocean, about a quarter of the returning emissions remain untraced.
OCO-2 is expected to remain in operation for at least two years, although Crisp said the satellite could last longer than that.
“We’re expecting to learn a lot about where the carbon dioxide is coming from and where it’s going over the next two years,” he said.
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