TAMPA, Fla. — SpaceX launched the Americas-focused ViaSat-3 broadband satellite on a Falcon Heavy rocket April 30 following delays partly caused by severe weather that included lightning and tornado warnings.
The Falcon Heavy lifted off 8:26 p.m. Eastern from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida, toward geostationary orbit (GEO) in the rocket’s sixth flight since its debut in 2018.
Both side boosters separated from the core stage just over three minutes after lift-off. The boosters had previously supported nine earlier missions in total, however, SpaceX decided not to attempt to recover them this time to improve the rocket’s performance.
The primary roughly 6,000-kilogram ViaSat-3 Americas payload was deployed around four hours and 32 minutes after lift-off, followed by two rideshare payloads: Arcturus, the first broadband satellite built by Californian venture Astranis at under 400 kilograms, and a cubesat from Washington-based Gravity Space with a communications payload.
The mission had at one point been scheduled for April 18 but was delayed for undisclosed reasons to April 26 following a static-fire test. SpaceX then delayed the April 26 launch by a day to complete data reviews.
However, severe weather April 27 disrupted that mission. Lightning struck the tower at the Falcon Heavy’s LC-39A launchpad during the storm, prompting SpaceX engineers to conduct checks on the rocket, its payloads, and ground systems.
SpaceX aborted another launch attempt April 28 at T-minus 59 seconds for reasons it did not disclose. With severe weather conditions forecast again for April 29, the mission was bumped to April 30.
Long time coming
The delays were part of a long-running series of setbacks for Viasat, which had originally planned to deploy the first of three ViaSat-3 satellites in 2019 — before being caught up in production and supply chain issues compounded by the pandemic.
There were payload, satellite integration, and launch delays, Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg told SpaceNews in an interview, “but the single biggest contributor was COVID-19,” which also led to a shortage of skilled workers.
Contact was established with ViaSat-3 Americas about 15 minutes after lift-off, Viasat announced, and the satellite will attempt to deploy its solar arrays over the coming days.
Dankberg said it will take close to three weeks for ViaSat-3 Americas to reach its final GEO position at 88.9 degrees West, and then another two to three months to complete health checks ahead of entering commercial service.
Viasat developed the payload for each ViaSat-3 internally and is using a chassis from Boeing based on the manufacturer’s 702 satellite platform.
Each Viasat-3 is designed to provide more than 1,000 gigabits per second (Gbps) of capacity, roughly three times more than Viasat provides over the Americas with the ViaSat-2 satellite launched in 2017.
The second ViaSat-3 is being designed for coverage over Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The third and final ViaSat-3 would cover Asia.
Dankberg said the second ViaSat-3 is currently undergoing final integration and tests at Boeing’s facilities ahead of a launch this fall on an Atlas 5 from United Launch Alliance.
“The third one is just about to be shipped to Boeing for integration,” he added, “and we expect that to launch a little over a year from now.”
Viasat had a contract to launch its third ViaSat-3 on Ariane 6, Arianespace’s next-generation launch vehicle.
However, Dankberg said the operator is seeking to order a different launch vehicle following delays to get Ariane 6 into service.
In addition to adding a significant amount of capacity, the first ViaSat-3 satellite would enable the company to extend its reach over the Americas.
“One of the really striking, immediate advantages with ViaSat-3, once we bring that into service, will be covering air routes to Hawaii,” Dankberg said.
He said the satellite would also enable Viasat to expand services out of Brazil to cover all of South America for the first time.
Hitching a ride
Astranis has secured a deal to lease the 10 Gbps of capacity on Arcturus to Pacific Dataport Inc. (PDI), a U.S.-based telco planning to use it for internet services across Alaska over the satellite’s seven-year lifetime.
The Californian venture plans to launch a batch of four more satellites on a dedicated Falcon 9 mission in late summer.
Mobile satellite connectivity specialist Anuvu is leasing capacity on two of these satellites, Peru-based cellular backhaul provider Andesat has an agreement for another, and Astranis said the fourth satellite has a customer that it will announce later.
Mexican telco Apco Networks said March 14 it has ordered two satellites from Astranis for a third batch of spacecraft that the manufacturer aims to launch on an undisclosed rocket next year.
Astranis recently raised more than $200 million for its expansion plans in an equity and debt deal led by the growth fund of U.S. venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.