Viasat books Falcon Heavy for ViaSat-3 launch

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WASHINGTON — Fleet operator Viasat of Carlsbad, California, plans to launch a large telecom satellite on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket between 2020 and 2022.

SpaceX will launch one of Viasat’s three ViaSat-3 satellites, each designed to cover a third of the planet with Ka-band spot beams for broadband connectivity.

The contract announced Oct. 25 marks the second time Viasat will attempt to launch on Falcon Heavy, having switched its ViaSat-2 satellite from Falcon Heavy to the Ariane 5 from European launch provider Arianespace in 2016 because of delays with the rocket’s development.

Viasat now has all three launches arranged for its ViaSat-3 constellation. In 2016, the company secured an Ariane 5 launch slot, and last month arranged an Atlas 5 launch with United Launch Alliance.

Viasat has not said in what order it will use the three contracted launches to put up its ViaSat-3 fleet. Boeing is building the first two satellites, one of which will cover North and South America and the other to cover Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Viasat intends to select a manufacturer for the third ViaSat-3 satellite this year.

Viasat’s Falcon Heavy mission, similar to the Atlas 5 mission, calls for a “near direct-injection” into geostationary orbit, tasking the rocket with carrying the satellite closer than usual to its final destination some 36,000 kilometers above the Earth. The ViaSat-3 satellites ordered to date use electric propulsion — a feature that reduces the amount of mass taken up by fuel, but typically requires several months of orbit raising for the satellite to reach its final destination once separated from its launcher.

“There are exciting opportunities for Falcon Heavy in the market, particularly for customers like Viasat that need direct-injection extremely close to geostationary orbit,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said in a statement. “We look forward to delivering ViaSat-3 to orbit and helping bring Viasat’s latest technology into service.”

SpaceX will conduct the launch from Pad 39A  at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Viasat is the second company to order a Falcon Heavy launch this month. Swedish company Ovzon announced Oct. 16 it will launch its first satellite on a Falcon Heavy no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2020. The U.S. Air Force and fleet operators Arabsat, Intelsat, and Inmarsat have also ordered Falcon Heavy launches.

“We selected SpaceX as they continue to demonstrate their commitment to advancing space technologies” Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space systems, said in a statement. “Their proven technology is both powerful and efficient enough to thrust a ViaSat-3 spacecraft close to geostationary orbit.”

Viasat in its announcement also hinted at an increase in the total capacity each ViaSat-3 satellite will have, saying each is now expected to carry “more than 1-Terabit per second of network capacity.” Initial estimates were for 1 terabit per second each, which would still exceed the capacity of any commercial geostationary satellite now in service.

ViaSat-3 satellites will have the ability to redirect capacity to customer locations to avoid stranding beams over empty areas.