ESA selects Viasat for multi-orbit satellite communications study

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TAMPA, Fla. — Viasat said July 26 it has been selected to study multi-orbit satellite networks for the European Space Agency.

The study will be conducted by the U.S.-based satellite broadband operator’s British subsidiary, which will spend a year evaluating technical requirements and potential markets for hybrid networks that combine multiple frequency bands and network architectures.

These include systems in geostationary orbit (GEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), low Earth orbit (LEO) and High Altitude Platform Systems (HAPS) such as balloons and airships.

John Reeves, managing director of Viasat UK, said the company will research how multi-layer networks “can increase capability, resilience, and performance for end-users across commercial and government.”

Viasat UK provides communications solutions mainly for the British government, particularly for data security and information insurance applications.

Carlsbad, California-headquartered Viasat is currently working through regulatory approvals to buy British satellite operator Inmarsat in a $7.3 billion deal, which would expand the U.S. company’s Ka-band GEO constellation globally into other spectrum bands. 

Inmarsat operates a fleet in GEO but has plans for satellites in LEO and highly elliptical orbits (HEO) that can maximize a satellite’s dwell time over higher latitudes.

Meanwhile, the European Union is seeking to develop a multibillion-dollar LEO constellation to fill broadband access gaps in Europe and Africa. 

The proposed sovereign constellation — which is in very early stages — also aims to provide secure communications for European governments and military organizations through quantum encryption technologies.

A consortium including European satellite makers, operators, service and launch providers has been helping Europe study the constellation’s feasibility.

Two other groups of mostly early-stage space companies have also been studying the proposed network: New Symphonie, which French companies lead, and UN:IO which is led by businesses based in Germany.

Viasat expects to complete its study for ESA in the second quarter of 2023 to give the U.K., Europe and allied nations “important guidance on a pathway toward developing and harnessing the potential of resilient multi-layered” satellite communications capabilities.

Viasat declined to disclose the amount of funding it will receive from ESA for the study.

“The study will focus on understanding how combining orbital regimes can create future systems that more efficiently use all available resources on orbit,” Viasat spokesperson Daniel Bleier said.

While the study “is not intended to specifically inform Europe’s plans for a sovereign LEO constellation,” Bleier said “it could provide valuable insight to advance the analysis of LEO, MEO, and GEO systems as well as the capabilities of hybrid, multi-layered systems.”

Viasat’s multi-orbit plan

Viasat’s shareholders last month approved its plans to acquire Inmarsat, putting the deal on track to wrap up later this year following regulatory approvals.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), the U.K.’s competition regulator, said July 25 it has started to review the transaction. The regulator invited the public to weigh in on its review during a comment period that closes Aug. 15.

“This is an important and anticipated part of the process towards completion of the deal, and we are committed to continued engagement with the CMA on this review,” Viasat spokesperson Jessica Packard said in an emailed statement.

“We maintain our belief that the complementary resources and assets of the combination with Inmarsat will result in the creation of a better UK business that will offer greater capabilities to both UK consumers and Government customers.”

French GEO operator Eutelsat announced the industry’s latest multi-orbit consolidation deal July 26 with plans to merge with OneWeb, the U.K.-based LEO broadband operator.

That deal could have implications for Europe’s sovereign broadband constellation, because Eutelsat is part of the industry consortium that has been helping to develop the network.

Although Eutelsat would take over OneWeb through their proposed all-share transaction, the British government would retain a special share in OneWeb that comes with priority voting rights.