July 23, 2018
What a Blast: On the scene at a satellite launch
Photos courtesy of Iridium.
As we countdown to the seventh Iridium NEXT launch this week, which will see the mission increase its total number of launched satellites and Aireon ADS-B payloads to 65, we reflect on a special day for six NAV CANADA employees who won an exclusive spot to attend the fifth Aireon launch through a country-wide employee contest. March 30 was a picture-perfect day in California. Skies were blue and winds light as the small group of special guests gathered at an observers’ location a few miles from the launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
At 7:13 a.m. Pacific Time, a flash of reddish flame announced the SpaceX Falcon 9 was about to lift off. As the rocket hurtled into the sky, the observers got their first palpable indication of the tremendous force of the launch.
“Soon after it lifted off we heard what was like the main after-burner on a fighter jet – and you could feel the power even a few miles from the site,” says Benoit Lafortune, Air Traffic Controller from our Montreal ACC and one of the six lucky winners from our national employee contest.
Dominik Bégin, Manager, Competency and Maintenance Services, Technical Operations from Ottawa adds, “you could feel this pressure sort of hit your chest. It was impressive.”
The rocket continued skyward, heading into orbit. Inside the space vehicle were 10 Iridium NEXT satellites, each one hosting an Aireon space-based ADS-B payload.
“At around 50,000 feet you could still see it,” says Jim Irvine, AIM Procedures Designer from Ottawa, and a retired colonel and pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force. “You could see it right up until Stage 1 separation. The Stage 1 module is the biggest weight on the vehicle so once it separates, Stage 2 kicks in, and the rocket is gone from sight very fast. Fascinating stuff.”
With the rocket now out of view, the observers congregated inside large tents and watched the final leg of the rocket’s journey on closed-circuit monitors. On the screens, the observers watched as mission control and the rocket seamlessly went about their business: deploying all 10 of the Iridium satellites, each one deployed at about one-minute intervals.
“What I will remember most is watching this incredible scene,” says Dominik. “It really stuck in my imagination. At the end of the deployment, you could see all 10 satellites lined up in a long arc in space with the Earth in the background. It was quite an image.”
When the Aireon payloads from the March 30 launch came online, the system could already deliver nearly global coverage with 15-minute or better update intervals.
“We are getting incredibly close to being fully operational” said Don Thoma, CEO Aireon. “Testing and validation continues with our customers and partners. Aireon is working closely with not only ANSPs, but partners like FlightAware and Airbus to ensure other aviation stakeholders have access to this data. We are entering a new generation of aviation and are excited to be the first, and only provider of this global, real-time air traffic surveillance data.”
“It was quite something to be there,” says Dominik. “Now when I explain to family and friends why I was there and what it means to NAV CANADA and how big a deal Aireon is, it just brings home the fact that this is going to change so much – it’s going to revolutionize aviation around the world.”
If reading about Launch #5 has you excited, be sure to tune in here to watch Launch #7, the penultimate launch, now targeted for July 25, 2018, at approximately 4:39 am PDT (11:39 UTC).