We’ve seen it all before: satellites launched up into the air by rockets, then placed into orbit for our satnavs, phones, and TV. No matter how many times we see it, it still doesn’t bore us. At the very least, because rockets are cool.

Of course, it’s even cooler since advancements are being made all the time.

On the 14th of January, 2017, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket took off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, to deliver the first Iridium NEXT satellites 625km above the ground for testing. You may remember the Falcon 9 as the same rocket that blew up in 2015. But luckily, this launch was successful, and better, it actually managed to land again! That means it can be flown again, rather than end up as space junk.

These particular satellites are top-of-the-line, new generation, and are about to make history. Iridium already has 66 satellites, which together provide coverage for the entire planet, making them the largest commercial ‘satellite constellation’. But it is planned for these ten satellites to be the first instalment in replacing the entire constellation, which will be the biggest “tech refresh” in history. This replacement program will cost US$3 billion, and should be completed in the middle of 2018. 

The Iridium NEXT satellite constellation will, among other things, provide secure internet and phone service for the entire planet, as well as the ability to track aircrafts. Naturally, these services won’t be for just anyone with a smartphone, but for those who really need to, say, phone Antarctica or talk with another office on a different continent about sensitive information.

This new constellation will continue to do the same things that its predecessors have done since 1997, but not everything. The new constellation will not produce Iridium flares, which occur when sunlight catches on a satellite antenna in exactly the right way, causing it to glow. Sometimes, they are so bright, they can even be seen in daylight. If you’d like to see one for yourself, try this site (change your location, then go to the Iridium Flares page). When the old satellites are knocked out of orbit, there won’t be any more flares. This is because NEXT satellites are designed with antennas that are angled differently, and won’t catch much sunlight.

Despite the loss of Iridium flares, I personally think this is very interesting. The technology involved in these satellites alone is absolutely amazing. Sure, iPhones are getting smarter and thinner, but without satellites, they’d be useless. This is an entire overhaul, akin to a company recalling all of its game consoles, just to replace them with a new and improved model. Plus, I like rockets.

Rockets are cool.