Iridium Satellites

A Delta II rocket launches Iridium's last five satellites in 2002 from Vandenberg Air Force base, California.

USAF/­Getty Images

­Conceived in 1987 by engineers from Motorola, who provided much of the financial backing, Iridium is a network of 66 satellites (and 13 in-orbit "spares") intended to provide worldwide satellite phone, data and fax services. Iridium was supposed to allow people to communicate anytime, anywhere.

Iridium LLC was created in 1992. Limited service began in 1998. Only 474 days later, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The main problem was the tremendous initial cost of launching the satellites: $5 billion [source: Judge]. Iridium charged high fees and needed at least 1 million subscribers just to stay out of the red. But many traditional GSM cell phone providers began providing their customers cheap roaming services across state and international boundaries, eliminating one of the main advantages of Iridium -- worldwide service. Iridium's phones were bulky, didn't work indoors and were extremely expensive, with one Motorola model costing more than $2,000.

­Iridium only managed to accrue 55,000 subscribers [source: Barboza]. Several of the satellites weren't launched, and for a time, it seemed that the satellites would simply be deorbited and burn up in the atmosphere. The existing satellites were eventually sold to a new company called Iridium Satellite for just $20 million. In 2002, Iridium Satellite launched the last five satellites. As of 2008, Iridium Satellite claimed that they had around 250,000 subscribers, including many from the military [source: Gruener].