Airbus to build trio of Inmarsat-7 satellites

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WASHINGTON — Inmarsat on May 30 announced an order with Airbus Defence and Space to build three satellites using a serial production method that will enable faster build times for follow-on spacecraft.

The reprogrammable geostationary satellites mark the beginning of London-based Inmarsat’s seventh-generation fleet, previously referred to as Global Xpress Flex, or GX Flex.

The Inmarsat-7 satellites are expected to launch in 2023, expanding Inmarsat’s fleet of Ka-band high-throughput satellites to 10.

Peter Hadinger, Inmarsat’s chief technology officer, described the Inmarsat-7 satellites as offering an “order of magnitude” more capacity than the satellites Inmarsat operates today, though he declined to quantify that capacity.

“Each and every one of them will have more capacity available than all of the GX spacecraft put together that came before them,” Hadinger said of the Inmarsat-7 series.

Inmarsat has four Boeing-built Global Xpress satellites in orbit — three for global coverage and one spare —  plus another, GX-5 from Thales Alenia Space, launching later this year on an Ariane 5 rocket. Two Inmarsat-6 satellites are under construction by Airbus for launches in 2020 and 2021.

With the Inmarsat-7 order, Airbus has furthered its commanding lead in winning geostationary satellite  manufacturing orders this year. Airbus is building six of the eight satellites ordered in 2019 — four by itself (the Inmarsat-7s and Measat-3d) and two it is co-building with Thales Alenia Space (SpainSat NG 1 and 2).

The SpainSat satellites are for Hisdesat, an operator 30 percent owned by the Spanish government, and in which Airbus has a 15 percent stake.

Boeing has claimed the other geostationary communications satellite orders this year, one from Viasat for an Asia-Pacific-focused ViaSat-3 satellite, and one for the U.S. Air Force’s WGS-11 satellite.

The Inmarsat-7s leverage a new platform called OneSat, described by Airbus as a modular, “design-to-manufacturer” telecom satellite.

Hadinger said that while the first three Inmarsat-7 satellites will take about three-and-a-half years from start to launch, subsequent satellites using the OneSat platform will be much quicker.

“We expect that the spacecraft, after the first three, we can deliver in 18 months from flash to bang, from order to actual launch, to get new capability into regions as customers demand it,” he said.

The first Global Xpress satellite took three years from production order to launch.

Inmarsat has 13 satellites in orbit today, nine of which preceded the Global Xpress series of high-throughput satellites.

Like the first three Global Xpress satellites launched between 2013 and 2015, Inmarsat will space the initial Inmarsat-7s around the world to ensure worldwide availability. Additional satellites would bring capacity to areas with strong customer demand, Hadinger said.

Hadinger said the three satellites will cover the globe from the equator up to 75 degrees north and south. When combined with the company’s earlier generation satellites, some Inmarsat customers will be in view of up to four Inmarsat satellites simultaneously, Hadinger said.

Having aircraft, boats and other end users in line of sight to multiple satellites means less risk of signal blockage, Hadinger said, overcoming a criticism competitors with larger satellite fleets have leveraged.

Hadinger said the Inmarsat-7s will be able to deliver gigabits of capacity to targeted areas, such as airports, for broadband connectivity.

Satellite operators have emphasized in recent years the need for “flexible” high-throughput satellites that can change according to customer need, rather than satellites with pre-set coverage areas, power levels and beam sizes. Many are preparing to introduce such satellites, like Eutelsat with Eutelsat Quantum, Viasat with its ViaSat-3 series and SES with its O3b mPower constellation. Inmarsat is no exception.

Hadinger said Inmarsat will have the ability to generate thousands of beams on the Inmarsat-7 satellites, and make changes to those beams in seconds. How many beams each Inmarsat-7 will have depends on the day-to-day network configuration of the satellite, he said. 

Philip Balaam, president of Inmarsat’s aviation division, said the satellites will be able to track aircraft from hubs like London and Paris, and follow them across the Atlantic to the United States with dedicated bandwidth. The satellites will also be able to adapt to daily changes in demand from different regions and customers, he said. 

Hadinger said the Inmarsat-7s are being designed for operational lives that exceed the typical 15-year benchmark set for geostationary communications satellites. Each satellite will weigh around three metric tons, he said.

Hadinger said the Inmarsat-7s are light enough that all three could launch on the same rocket, though Inmarsat has yet to decide what launch provider or providers would send the satellites into orbit.