Viasat books ULA Atlas 5 for a ViaSat-3 satellite launch

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PARIS — United Launch Alliance beat out SpaceX and Arianespace to win a launch contract for an upcoming Viasat satellite.

The deal, announced Sept. 10, is ULA’s first commercial contract since taking full responsibility for sales and marketing of the Atlas 5 from Lockheed Martin in January.

ULA will launch one of the three ViaSat-3 satellites that Carlsbad, California-based Viasat has under development2. Viasat has not decided which of the three satellites will fly on Atlas 5 but said the launch will occur between 2020 and 2022.

Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space systems, told SpaceNews that the company was won over by ULA’s schedule reliability and the Atlas 5 rocket’s 78 consecutive successful missions.

In a statement, ULA CEO Tory Bruno echoed those points.

“ULA’s Atlas V launch vehicle is the most reliable launch vehicle in the world and we could not be more pleased that Viasat, a leading satellite broadband innovator, has recognized the value the Atlas V can offer,” he said.

Viasat has shown less patience with launch delays than other satellite operators, having switched its ViaSat-2 satellite from SpaceX to Arianespace when it became clear that Falcon Heavy would not be able to launch the satellite in 2016. ViaSat-2 launched on an Ariane 5 in June 2017, allowing Viasat to continue adding satellite broadband subscribers in the United States where its ViaSat-1 satellite was already maxed out, and to add more business elsewhere.

Ryan said ULA’s launch price, generally not the company’s strength, was also a significant factor in the award, though he declined to give specifics. The dearth of new geostationary satellite orders is being felt by launch providers, he said, making for more favorable negotiating terms for satellite operators.

“The marketplace right now helped us reach a mutually agreeable price,” he said.

Ryan said SpaceX and Arianespace were the closest contenders for the mission.

ULA will use its most powerful Atlas 5, the 551 variant (equipped with a 5-meter payload fairing and five strap-on boosters) to lift the heavyweight ViaSat-3 satellite.

Ryan said the Atlas 551 will also cut the orbit raising time for the ViaSat-3 satellite, which uses xenon-electric propulsion, by at least half, meaning the satellite would reach the geostationary arc some 36,000 kilometers up in three months or less.

Ryan said Viasat is not done signing launch contracts.

“For the diversity of our mission we continue to be in talks with Ariane[space] and with SpaceX,” he said.

Viasat has ambitions to be a global internet service provider, covering the planet with three high-throughput ViaSat-3 satellites each capable of a terabit or more of total capacity.

Viasat plans to launch the first ViaSat-3 satellite in 2020 and the third by 2022, Ryan said. The company has procured two ViaSat-3s, the first for the Americas and the second for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, from Boeing. A manufacturer selection for the last ViaSat-3, designated for the Asia-Pacific, is expected by the end of the year.

Viasat previously signed a launch agreement with Arianespace for a ViaSat-3 satellite on an Ariane 5 rocket. One more ViaSat-3 satellite awaits a launch provider, regardless of order.