The satellite cluster is named after the element Iridium. This is because the element has 77 electrons (in orbit, geddit?), and the cluster was to have 77 satellites.

However, 66 satellites were used in the final version.

The element with 66 electrons is Dysprosium which means something like "bad approach". Does this explain the satellite phones' spectacular lack of success? It all starts to make sense....

(So named (Greek iris, "iris") in 1804 by S. Tennant, English chemist, because its salts have varied colors) A white, extremely dense, brittle, corrosion-resistant chemical element, one of the platinum metals. Alloys of iridium are used in electrodes, pen points, crucibles, etc.

Symbol: Ir
Atomic number: 77
Atomic weight: 192.217
Density (at room temperature and pressure): 22.4 g/cc
Melting point: 2,410°C
Boiling point: 4,430°C
Valence: +3, +4
Ground state electron configuration: [Xe]4f145d76s2
Density at 300K: 22.6 g/cm3
Covalent radius: 1.27
Atomic radius: 1.87
Atomic volume: 8.54 cm3/mol
First ionization potental: 9.1 V
Specific heat capacity: 0.130 Jg-1K-1
Thermal conductivity: 147 Wm-1K-1
Electrical conductivity: 21.3*106Ω-1m-1
Heat of fusion: 26.36 kJ/mol
Heat of vaporization: 563.58 kJ/mol
Electronegativity: 2.20 (Pauling's)
A news release:

Lansdowne, VA - December 12, 2000 - Iridium Satellite LLC today announced that it has completed the acquisition of the operating assets of Iridium LLC and its subsidiaries. With the asset transfer complete, Iridium Satellite LLC now owns all of the former assets of Iridium LLC, including the satellite constellation, the terrestrial network, Iridium real property and intellectual property owned by Iridium LLC. With a purchase price of $25 million and a cost structure that amounts to less than $7 million per month for all operations, the Company expects that it will be able to deliver extremely competitive satellite communications services to the market.

Iridium Satellite LLC will begin service to the U.S. government immediately. By the end of the 1st quarter of 2001, the Company will launch commercial satellite communications services to heavy industry and other government customers. The marketing strategy will be to focus on industrial clients whose operations require reliable communications to and from remote areas of the globe where terrestrial systems are not available. The Iridium system has the unique ability to reach all of the world's remote areas, including the airspace, the oceans and the many under-developed parts of the globe that currently have no communications systems. Specifically, the Company will pursue industrial segments including aviation, maritime, oil & gas, mining, heavy construction, forestry, emergency services and the leisure market.

"We do not see Iridium as a mass consumer service," said Dan Colussy, Chairman of Iridium Satellite LLC. "It is a communications service that addresses the very specific needs of the industrial markets and other specialized segments. Because of our significantly reduced cost structure and Iridium's unique system capabilities, we will be able to serve these markets more effectively than any other existing service."

Iridium Satellite will begin service with voice and data capabilities of 2.4 Kbps. The Company expects to offer enhanced data and Internet capability at 10 Kbps within six months of service launch and short burst messaging by the end of 2001. Iridium satellite also plans to offer specialty equipment for aviation, maritime and fixed applications.

Iridium Satellite LLC has contracted with The Boeing Company to operate and maintain the satellite constellation, and Motorola has agreed to provide subscriber equipment.

In the final version Iridium had 70 low-orbit satellites up in the sky before they went bankrupt.

On the 7th of December 2000, the US Pentagon, largest corporate user of the Iridium communication satellites (2000 subscribers), has stepped in and offered Iridium Satellite LLC a $72 million deal to keep the satellites up in the orbit for two years, provided Iridium supplies unlimited airtime to the government, military and coast-guard users.

The satellites were originally going to be taken out of the orbit later on in December 2000 by Motorola. Iridium accepted the deal, and has agreed to provide unlimited airtime to more than 20000 government users, including military, the Secret Service, Drug Enforcement Administration and other US federal agencies. After the initial two-year period the contract may be extended up to the year 2007, with the total funding going into Iridium reaching $252 million.

According to a policy paper provided by The Pentagon after the announcement of the deal, the de-orbiting of the satellites "... (could have) created widespread anxiety and lead to a public outcry for ill-considered government action". The paper also expressed concern that there is no federal regulatory policy on how to handle a mass de-orbiting of satellites, since it has never happened before.

"Although neither the FCC nor the executive branch believed it had any basis for blocking the mass de-orbit, both were concerned about the 'regulatory vacuum' into which Motorola's proposed action fell," the paper said.

The Pentagon also expressed its needs for additional satellite telephone communications, citing the example of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole in Yemen earlier this year, when the power on the ship was knocked out by the explosion and the crew had to rely on satellite phones.
There is a very funny story (at least if you are a geek) regarding Iridium which I wanted to chronicle.

Early in 2000 the Iridium satellite company went bankrupt. This was pretty significant considering there were 66 satellites orbiting the earth that no one knew what to do with.

At the time they were planning on de-orbiting these satellites and crashing them into the earth's surface. A lot of people were very upset at the waste of resources this would represent (billions of US dollars).

Here comes the funny part...

Iridium is a base element. It was used by a number of scientists to prove that an asteroid caused the extinction of the dinosaurs.

You see Iridium is a *very* heavy element. Normally heavy elements are pulled towards the earth's core (AKA Iron, Gold, Plutonium, etc).

The geological record showed that somewhere between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods a thin layer of Iridium could be found.

This means that this Iridium would have come from some other location (an asteroid).

This is where the Iridium satellites come into play. If these 66 satellites were crashed into the earth's surface around the year 2000, scientists in the future would have a clear geological indication of year 2000.

Why is this funny?

Well... it was a very good foreshadowing of the future plans of the company. I mean the second they named the company Iridium they already sealed their fate.

Also... what are the odds that these satellites would come back to earth :)


More information is available here.

Iridium is also somewhat notorious in the game Jumpgate (created by NetDevil, published by both Mightygames and 3DO) as the heaviest commodity one can cart around in the holds of your spaceship.

Much fun is had telling new players to load up their cargo ship with iridium then watch them trying to do anything with so much inertia that merely coming to a stop becomes difficult.

I*rid"i*um (?), n. [NL., fr. L. iris, iridis, the rainbow. So called from the iridescence of some of its solutions. See Iris.] Chem.

A rare metallic element, of the same group as platinum, which it much resembles, being silver-white, but harder, and brittle, and indifferent to most corrosive agents. With the exception of osmium, it is the heaviest substance known, its specific gravity being 22.4. Symbol Ir. Atomic weight 192.5.

⇒ Iridium usually occurs as a native alloy with osmium (iridosmine or osmiridium), which may occur alone or with platinum. Iridium, as an alloy with platinum, is used in bushing the vents of heavy ordnance. It is also used for the points of gold pens, and in a finely powdered condition (iridium black), for painting porcelain black.


© Webster 1913.

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