September 9, 2011 / 12:35 AM / 8 years ago

Iridium says space collision risk low

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The danger of collisions between satellites in space has lessened sharply thanks to better coordination with U.S. military satellite trackers, said the head of Iridium Communications Inc (IRDM.O), which was involved in the only such mishap to have occurred so far.

Matthew Desch, CEO of Iridium Communications, takes part in the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington September 8, 2011. REUTERS/Molly Riley

“The risk is very, very, very small — extremely small,” Matthew Desch, the company’s chief executive, told the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington on Thursday.

“That doesn’t mean we dismiss it,” he said. “It requires effort, but don’t think there will be a problem.”

The U.S. Air Force began sharing more specific information with satellite operators about possible collisions after an Iridium communications satellite collided with a defunct Russian military communications satellite in February 2009, destroying both craft. It was the first-ever collision between two intact spacecraft.

Since the accident, Desch said, his company has almost 100 times nudged one or another of its 66 satellites in its low-Earth-orbit constellation to get them out of harm’s way. Such tweaks, accomplished through tiny puffs from thruster engines, are based on information the company now receives from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center.

The center is a branch of the Air Force that maintains data for all Earth-orbiting man-made objects.

A U.S. study released last week said the amount of debris orbiting the Earth has reached “a tipping point” for collisions, which would in turn generate more of the debris that threatens astronauts and satellites.

NASA needs a new strategic plan for mitigating the hazards posed by spent rocket bodies, discarded satellites and thousands of other pieces of junk flying around the planet at speeds of 17,500 miles per hour, the National Research Council said in the study.

The council is one of the private, nonprofit U.S. national academies that provide expert advice on scientific problems.

Iridium is getting ready to replace the satellites in its existing network with new ones that will provide expanded data and voice communications service as early as 2015.

The company has reserved space on each satellite for third-party payloads, Desch said.

Iridium derives 23 percent of its revenue from the U.S. Department of Defense, the company’s largest single customer. Desch predicted the share of the company’s revenue from the Pentagon would rise despite possible deep cuts in the Pentagon budget over the coming decade.

Reporting by Karen Jacobs; Editing by Phil Berlowitz

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