CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —SpaceX launched a satellite for Inmarsat Feb. 17 that gives the operator more capacity for partnerships in an emerging direct-to-device market.

A Falcon 9 carrying the British company’s Inmarsat-6 F2 (I-6 F2) satellite lifted off 10:59 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. 

I-6 F2 separated from the rocket about 32 minutes later, and will use onboard electric propulsion to get to its geostationary orbit slot over the Atlantic Ocean over the next several months.

As is now typical for a Falcon 9 mission, the rocket’s first stage successfully landed shortly after launch for reuse. The booster has previously supported a crewed flight to the International Space Station and the launch of a GPS 3 satellite.

Earlier in the day, SpaceX launched another Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, to take 51 satellites for its broadband constellation to low Earth orbit (LEO).

Inmarsat said I-6 F2 is slated to enter service in 2024 following rigorous in-orbit tests. 

Network expansion

The satellite is identical to the Inmarsat-6 F1 (I-6 F1) that is due to start operations from a geostationary slot over the Indian Ocean early this year, following its December 2021 launch by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Both Airbus-built satellites are equipped with a hybrid Ka-band and L-band payload to primarily provide mobile connectivity services across maritime, aviation, and government markets.

I-6 F1’s Ka-band capacity will target demand for high-speed connectivity in Southeast Asia, Inmarsat chief technology officer Peter Hadinger said Feb. 18, while I-6 F2’s Ka-band beams will address hotspots over the Atlantic Ocean.

According to Hadinger, each satellite also doubles the amount of usable L-band capacity in their coverage area that Inmarsat currently provides with its eight-satellite global ELERA network.

This step-up in capacity will primarily support the voice and messaging services Inmarsat already enables via specialized handsets with bulky antennas, as well as its business for connecting remote tracking and monitoring devices.

But as Iridium progresses with plans to use its L-band for connecting mass market devices, and other operators flock to the direct-to-device opportunity, Hadinger said I-6 F1 and I-6 F2 could also help unlock more partnership opportunities for Inmarsat in this area.

“It certainly gives us longevity,” he said, referring to how each satellite is designed to operate for more than 15 years.

“And by giving us additional efficiency in the spectrum, it does improve the number of options we have in terms of lining up with any of these particular direct-to-device” initiatives. 

British handset maker Bullitt recently said it had developed a smartphone that can use Inmarsat’s network outside of cellular coverage to provide narrowband services that include text messages.

“The big question then is how much bandwidth do you need [and] do you need to build a purpose-built fleet to do that?” Hadinger said.

“We’re not yet convinced that that is the case, but we have been approached by everybody because we have spectrum.”

Inmarsat is currently also considering plans for a LEO constellation that could ultimately support direct-to-device connectivity. 

Jason Rainbow writes about satellite telecom, space finance and commercial markets for SpaceNews. He has spent more than a decade covering the global space industry as a business journalist. Previously, he was Group Editor-in-Chief for Finance Information...