With the recent announcement that Viasat has officially ordered a third ViaSat-3 satellite over the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, the Company is moving quickly on a planned global internet constellation — potentially in place by the end of 2022.
Each of the ViaSat-3 satellites is expected to offer 1 terabit (1 Tbps) or more of total network capacity — a substantial jump from ViaSat-1 (140 Gigabit per second — Gbps) and ViaSat-2 (260 Gbps). The first two satellites are already under construction at Viasat’s Tempe, Ariz. facility, with a planned first launch likely in late 2020/early 2021. The first ViaSat-3 will cover the Americas and the second will serve Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). With the third one now official to cover APAC, Viasat is on its way to likely becoming the world’s first global internet service provider.
So what does it take to execute a program like this? We caught up with Dave Ryan, president of Viasat’s Space Systems division, which oversees the construction, launch and flight of the Company’s fleet of satellites. Ryan explained that the ViaSat-3 class of satellites are comprised of quite a few pieces, the largest of which is the spacecraft itself. As it did with ViaSat-2, the Company partnered with Boeing Satellite Systems International for the three new satellites, all of which will be on the Boeing 702 platform — or “bus.”
Boeing has been using variations of the 702 bus for a number of years, but each one is customized to meet the unique requirements of the satellite payload.
The payload, which Viasat designed and is building in its Tempe facility, is comprised of a variety of components — it’s the communications hub with antennas, receivers and transmitters — and it is bolted onto a payload module, which is made to fit exactly into the bus. Ryan said the Tempe team is currently at work on the first and second ViaSat-3 class satellites, building up the payload and using a “test bed” similar to the actual payload module.
Ryan noted that building three similar satellites has its advantages but added that each are still distinct in certain ways. The engineering challenge — over and above the “special sauce” that makes Viasat’s satellite’s vastly more powerful than any others — is to build something that has to:
- Survive being propelled into space atop a rocket
- Make its way to a precise orbital slot in geostationary orbit 22,236 miles above the equator
- Be able to work for 15+ years without any way to service it (other than electronically)
- Endure both the extreme cold of space on one side and the enormous heat of the sun on the other
Compared to almost any other machine humans make, orbiting geostationary satellites can have no expectation of being repaired while on the job, which partially explains why it takes years to design and build one.
Launch partners and ground systems
Like ViaSat-2, the ViaSat-3 class of satellites will be all-electric — propelled using ionized xenon gas. This allows additional room for capacity-enhancing electronics but comes with the tradeoff that this method of propulsion is a good deal slower than liquid propellant. To offset this, Viasat looks to use larger rockets — such as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Atlas V — which can get the satellite much higher and closer to its orbital slot. This can shave months off the time between launch of the satellite and launch of service.
While Ryan’s team is looking to the sky, the other major component underway is the advanced ground system for the ViaSat-3 constellation. Like the satellites themselves, Viasat has completely redesigned its earth stations, known as Satellite Access Nodes — or “SANs,” which connect a collection of user terminals through the satellite to the Service Delivery Platform. The SAN includes a compact Ka-band satellite antenna and all elements needed to transmit and receive signals to and from the satellite.
Compared to the enormous ground gateway antennas of the past, the SANs for the ViaSat-3 constellation are much smaller, and more distributed. That means the elimination of things like large buildings full of servers and backup generators. It also means a reduction in the cost of the earth stations themselves, which in turn means Viasat can deploy a great many more of them more cost effectively. Just as more cell towers in an area will likely improve your phone reception, so, too, does the addition of earth stations to improve the performance of a satellite network.
And, with more earth stations comes enhanced redundancy so that if weather or some other factor disturbs one SAN, the network is largely unaffected.
A global constellation
Billions of people around the world have limited or no access to the internet, so the idea of a global constellation that can reach almost everywhere is an idea whose time has come.
Viasat understands that many of these populations cannot afford a direct-to-home solution like we currently offer in the U.S. and Europe, and we’ve been working on alternatives, such as our Community Wi-Fi service. Already within reach of over a million people in Mexico, Community Wi-Fi allows people to purchase small bits of bandwidth at an affordable price so they can get online.
A global network also has the ability to connect ships at sea, aircraft in the air, islands in the middle of the ocean and just about any other place where terrestrial networks can’t or won’t go. While a patchwork of such connectivity currently exists over a variety of older satellites, the ViaSat-3 constellation will bring much more uniform coverage with vastly improved speeds and data capacity. Along with the needs of people and business, it will also enable the U.S. government and other allies to take advantage of artificial intelligence and cloud-based applications over a highly resilient network that can also connect senior leader aircraft.
There’s a seemingly limitless number of advantages and possibilities once the ViaSat-3 constellation is in place. Some have called the effort to connect the world via satellite “the new space race.” If that’s the case, Viasat is already on the inside track.