Operators of the Iridium satellite communications system said Monday they have completed the insertion of a backup satellite into orbit about 500 miles above the Earth's surface to replace a satellite destroyed three weeks ago when it collided with a nonfunctioning Russian satellite over Siberia.
The replacement satellite was one of eight backups that Iridium already has in orbit that can be pressed into service in an emergency, said officials of Iridium Satellite LLC, the privately held company based in Bethesda, Md., that owns the global telecom system.
Iridium operates a network of 66 satellites in low orbit that covers the globe and provides voice and data communications anywhere in the world to subscribers who use special telephone handsets.
The system is used by government, maritime, defense, mining, oil and gas and other industries that need communications in remote locations.
The satellites, each of which are more than 13 feet long and weigh about 1,160 pounds on Earth, were manufactured in the 1990s by Motorola's former Satellite Communications division in Chandler.
Today, Iridium operates an earth station and administrative offices in Tempe with a combined 95 employees. About 110 Boeing employees work at a network operations center in Chandler as subcontractors to Iridium,
Iridium's telephone service was not greatly disrupted by the collision because messages could be routed around the missing satellite, and backup ground stations were quickly activated in Alaska and Norway, said Liz DeCastro, spokeswoman for Iridium.
"When it occurred, we told our (customers) there might be minimal disruptions for a few minutes a day, but we didn't hear much from our customers," she said. "We activated the backup earth stations in just three days and then we maneuvered the backup satellite into the constellation within a few weeks."
DeCastro said Iridium is working with government and private space organizations to improve the system of tracking objects in orbit and communicating information on their whereabouts. Better information and warnings might have prevented the Feb. 10 collision, she said.
"Improved space situational awareness is essential to the well being of the global space community," said Iridium Chief Executive Matt Desch.
NASA officials consider the collision to be the most severe accident of its type ever. There were four previous cases in which space objects collided accidentally in orbit, but those were considered minor events involving parts of spent rockets or small satellites.