SpaceX Launches ViaSat Satellite on Falcon Heavy

SpaceX launched the first of three ViaSat Internet-providing satellites on April 30, 2023. This next-generation satellite, ViaSat-3, will help provide coverage for the Americas.

The satellite launch faced numerous delays throughout the latter half of April due to poor weather and a possible technical issue. A launch scheduled for April 18 was scrubbed due to undisclosed issues after a static fire test. SpaceX canceled a second attempt slated for April 27 to conduct inspections after lightning hit the tower. Then it delayed the launch again due to severe weather warnings in Florida.

ViaSat established contact with its satellite fifteen minutes after launch. The satellite will attempt to extend its solar panels in the coming days as part of preparations for planned operations. It will also maneuver to its planned orbit.

ViaSat plans to cover Europe, the Middle East, and Africa with an upcoming second satellite once it is launched. A third satellite will cover Asia. Their ranges will allow coverage for air routes to Hawaii and extend service to nearly all of South America.

The satellites will maneuver into geosynchronous orbit once launched. Most geosynchronous satellites orbit at an altitude of 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers), which keeps them over the same region of Earth as it rotates. Most Starlink satellites orbit at an altitude of 342 miles (550 kilometers) to provide better latency, or the response time that a signal can get. SpaceX plans to launch as many as 42,000 Starlink satellites and may launch some of its Version 2 satellites on its Starship/Super Heavy stack once it becomes operational.

(Yes, Starlink has led to complaints that they interfere with astronomers’ observations. SpaceX says it’s working on that.)

Like many competing satellite Internet service providers, ViaSat has previously made waves about Starlink. It filed a challenge to the FCC’s regulatory approval for launches of Starlink satellites in 2021. ViaSat alleged that the FCC had not properly considered the environmental impact of SpaceX launches. Launching so many satellites may contribute to the “space junk” problem.

Later, a panel of judges dismissed a case that ViaSat had filed in court. Predictably, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk did not react kindly to ViaSat’s challenge, which he claimed was purely about ViaSat not liking competition. The lower latency of Starlink’s Internet-providing satellites may make it popular for users of software that require “real-time” functionality, such as videoconferencing or gaming.

However, like SpaceX’s relationship with OneWeb, SpaceX does not let previous conflicts stop it from accepting ViaSat as a paying customer. It’s unknown whether ViaSat might have any lingering hurt feelings about the case.

However, ViaSat did choose not to rely exclusively on SpaceX. ViaSat will launch the next two satellites on a ULA Atlas-5 rocket and an ArianeSpace Ariane-6 rocket, respectively. In the wake of delays in Ariane-6 development, ViaSat says it may reassign launch of the third satellite if ArianeSpace cannot have its rocket up and running by then. It expects the second satellite to launch in Fall 2023 and the third satellite next year.