66 Iridium Satellites may be deliberately crashed because of bankruptcy

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Iridium satellites to burn in debacle    More Technology News

WASHINGTON, March 15 (Reuters) - Iridium, a U.S. satellite telephone company operating under bankruptcy protection, is on the verge of one of the most spectacular business flameouts ever -- literally set to burn up billions of dollars' worth of Earth-orbiting assets.

Barring the last-minute arrival of a qualified buyer, the company plans to begin "de-orbiting""the 66 satellites that make up the world's first low-orbit system for wireless telephone service.

That means the network -- variously reported to have cost $5 billion to $7 billion -- would be vaporized as its satellites, bumped by their thrusters, plunge from 485 miles (781 km) above the Earth in flames over the ocean.

The next hearing in Iridium's bankruptcy, originally set for Wednesday, was postponed until Friday because of a scheduling conflict involving Judge Cornelius Blackshear, said a clerk for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York.

Andrew Balfour, a spokesman for Washington-based Iridium, said, "I know they're talking to people but I just don't know who's going to come forward, or if."

One possible savior, the U.S. Defense Department, ruled out any interest on Wednesday, the court-imposed deadline to find a buyer or face a windup of operations.

"There are no plans to buy or interest in Iridium from the Pentagon," Cheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokeswoman, said in reply to a query from Reuters.

Marc Crossman, a satellite communications analyst at J.P. Morgan in New York, predicted no rescuers would emerge because of the limited value of the network's narrow-band communications capability. "It's toast," he said.

The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August after badly miscalculating the fast-changing market for portable phones that could be used worldwide.

"They had the wrong product for the wrong market at the wrong time," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington.

The increasingly global reach of land-based wireless phone carriers has allowed business travelers, a prime Iridium market, to stay connected in all but some of the world's most remote spots.

"It's not going to be too long before you can take a cellular phone anywhere in the world and have it work simply by throwing a switch," Logsdon said.

Iridium's bulky handsets -- which did not work well in buildings and cars and were often compared to bricks -- cost as much as $3,000 each when the satellite network went into operation on Nov. 1, 1998. Subsequent price drops slashed their price in half, but by then the market was spinning away.

Motorola Inc. MOT.N , which built, bankrolled and operates Iridium's satellites, said last week it planned to switch off the service on Friday at 11:59 p.m. (0459 GMT on Saturday) in the absence of a buyer. Motorola holds an 18 percent stake and is Iridium's largest shareholder.


Among big Iridium clients has been the Defense Department, which listed about 3,000 registered users of its "gateway""to the service. The Pentagon alone had about 800 users. The others were from other U.S. agencies and departments, said Susan Hansen, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

If Iridium's service were turned off, Defense Department users would fall back on such services as Inmarsat, the London-based global mobile satellite company, and the Pentagon's own UHF satellite network, she said.

Scott Wyman, a spokesman for Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola, said it was "premature""to discuss arrangements for de-orbiting the 1,460-pound (662-kg) satellites, which are steered from Earth by thrusters powered by hydrazine, a common satellite propellant.

Nudging the satellites onto the proper "glide path""to burn up over uninhabited areas is relatively simple, said George Levin, director of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board at the National Research Council, which advises federal clients on scientific issues.

He said bringing them back represented an act of good corporate citizenship lest the craft become part of the thousands of bits of orbiting junk that could get in the way of working satellites.

"Here's a guy about to go bankrupt and his last act is to clean himself up. That's certainly very, very responsible," said Levin, a self-described space "garbageman""who managed NASA's orbital debris program.


-- Carl Jenkins (Somewherepress@aol.com), March 16, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ