Despite getting a one-year headstart on EchoStar’s recently launched broadband behemoth, Viasat’s new flagship beat Jupiter-3 to orbit by just three months — only to suffer an antenna deployment failure that could knock it out the race altogether.
The potentially mission-ending issue on ViaSat-3 Americas could have left the satellite rural broadband market wide open for EchoStar in the United States, where operators including SpaceX’s Starlink are currently capacity constrained.
Both Jupiter-3 and ViaSat-3 were ordered well before SpaceX started launching satellites for its global low Earth orbit broadband (LEO) network in 2019.
After launching well over 4,000 satellites, SpaceX is now deploying Starlink V2 Minis, which it says have around four times more capacity than earlier versions, or 68- 92 gigabits per second (Gbps) based on the bandwidth first-generation satellites were designed around.
That is still less than a fifth of the 500 Gbps capacity EchoStar aims to bring online over the Americas with Jupiter-3 from geostationary orbit (GEO), which is higher than LEO and so does not require multiple satellites for the same consistent coverage, at the cost of more latency.
Viasat had planned to deliver a whopping 1,000 Gbps of capacity from ViaSat-3 before running into an issue during reflector deployment following its April 30 SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch.
Jupiter-3 launched July 28 on a Falcon Heavy, the rocket’s second mission for a commercial customer in 2023, in one of many parallels with ViaSat-3 Americas.
EchoStar ordered Jupiter-3 from what is now Maxar Technologies in 2017 — a year after its rival brought in Boeing to help build the first of three ViaSat-3 spacecraft.
But both Ka-band satellites suffered production delays made worse by pandemic-infected supply chains.
EchoStar had initially hoped to launch in 2021, while Viasat, which built ViaSat-3’s payload for a chassis provided by Boeing in an untypical partnership for the industry, had targeted 2019. They are also among the largest communications satellites in orbit.
Jupiter-3 is the heaviest commercial satellite ever launched at around 9,000 kilograms. While ViaSat-3 was a considerably lighter 5,600 kilograms at launch, its deployed solar arrays give it a wider wingspan — 44 meters to Jupiter-3’s 39 meters. Each satellite is also designed to double the bandwidth their operators currently provide.
EchoStar plans to put Jupiter-3 into service in the fourth quarter after the satellite reaches its geostationary parking spot and passes health checks.
Leveraging a telescoping arm Viasat says is even larger than the James Webb Space Telescope sunshield boom it is based on, ViaSat-3’s operator had hoped to be providing services by the end of September before its antenna issue.
Some analysts have already written off ViaSat-3 as a total loss, although a Viasat spokesperson said it remains too early to speculate about the service it could still provide. .
The company plans to give an update during Aug. 9 financial results on the antenna, which was supplied by JWST prime Northrop Grumman, according to a CBS News pre-launch report citing a Viasat executive.
EchoStar has fingers crossed that this is where similarities with Jupiter-3 end.
Paul Gaske, EchoStar’s chief operating officer, declined to disclose details about the antennas on Jupiter-3 and who supplies them but said their “properties are well understood for this application,” unlike Viasat’s more novel approach.
Jupiter-3’s antennas are also based on materials and configurations deployed on several other satellites in EchoStar’s fleet and other commercial satellites in orbit.
Viasat has options for meeting any Americas shortfall. The operator has said it could redeploy assets from its current fleet of 19 satellites or even relocate an upcoming ViaSat-3 to provide bandwidth over the Americas instead of elsewhere.
The company could also order a replacement with insurance proceeds, potentially scaling down early plans for a ViaSat-4 spacecraft to rush capacity to the region.
The satellite’s orbit is stable despite its issues. According to B. Riley analyst Mike Crawford, this means Viasat could wait a decade to move the satellite to a graveyard orbit in the hope a servicer from a company such as SpaceLogistics, owned by Northrop Grumman, could one day fix it.
Emerging in-orbit servicing capabilities offer interesting possibilities for fortifying critical services, Gaske said, but EchoStar isn’t quite ready to venture too far down this road.
While “it certainly doesn’t escape your consciousness that something has happened to another” satellite, Gaske said EchoStar and its partners remain steadfast with plans six years in the making.
“It’s important just to stick to your script,” he said, “and I think we’ll be in good shape.”
And although issues with the first ViaSat-3 satellite could reduce some competitive pressure on Hughes, he said the market remains full of broadband rivals — not only Starlink, but wireless competitors and rural telcos supported by government subsidies.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.