The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, in its second flight and the first with a customer payload, lifts off April 11 carrying the Lockheed Martin-built Arabsat 6A telecommunications satellite. Britain’s Avanti, the European Space Agency and Airbus Defence and Space viewed the launch with at best mixed emotions. Credit: SpaceX

PARIS — SpaceX’s specular second launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket — the vehicle’s second flight, and the first carrying a customer payload — delivered the Arabsat 6A satellite into geostationary-transfer orbit and, with it, sent an ominous message to satellite fleet operator Avanti, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Airbus Defence and Space.

Arabsat 6 manufacturer Lockheed Martin confirmed the satellite’s health in orbit, and its chemical propulsion will be used to place the satellite in final geostationary position by June.

That gives Avanti, represented by the British telecoms regulator, Ofcom; ESA and Airbus little time to avoid a cascade of events that could result in all of them losing cash or business or both.

Ofcom has told the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that Avanti established rights to Ka-band frequencies at 31 degrees east with the launch, in 2012, of its Hylas 2 satellite. That satellite has been functioning ever since, and recently attracted the attention of U.S. satellite broadband provider Viasat Inc.

Avanti’s Hylas 3 satellite, carrying a Ka-band payload, is scheduled to join Hylas 2 at the same orbital slot following a scheduled launch this summer aboard an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket. The satellite is more than three years late.

ESA and Airbus are paying a large share of the Hylas 3 costs because they are sharing the satellite’s platform to operate a laser data-relay service that Airbus is managing for commercial use. They call the satellite EDRS-3, for the European Data Relay System.

The Arabsat 6A satellite is shown here separating from the Falcon Heavy rocket’s upper stage. Credit: SpaceX

Here’s where Arabsat comes in. The Riyadh, Saudi Arabia-based fleet operator, representing 21 Arab League nations, has told the ITU that it registered Ka-band at 30.5 degrees east, just half a degree away from Avanti, with the 2010 launch of the Arabsat 5A.

No one mentioned any Ka-band payload on Arabsat 5A when it was launched, and Ofcom told the ITU it has tried, without success, to find any indication of Arabsat 5A ever having operated in that frequency.

Ofcom asked the ITU to annul Arabsat’s Ka-band filling, saying the company has long ago lost any rights to the frequency at 30.5 degrees by virtue of never having brought it into service.

Arabsat responded to the ITU that the Ka-band payload on Arabsat 5A was for military use, which is why Arabsat never mentioned it. http://bit.ly/2IdKC1x

Arabsat invoked the ITU’s Article 48 covering military use of frequencies, a way of signaling to the ITU that the regulator should back off.

Caught between an insistent British government and a powerful regional operator represented by the Saudi government — and mindful that it usually steers clear of Article 48 issues — the ITU in late March asked the two sides to work out their differences with ITU mediation: http://bit.ly/2G8Bat2

Avanti, through Ofcom, has said it cannot manage its Hylas 2 and Hylas 3 business without Avanti and Arabsat interfering with each other’s satellites.

Avanti’s Ka-band Hylas 2 was launched in 2012 and operates at 31 degrees east. The Hylas 3, scheduled for launch this summer, is also scheduled to be stationed at that slot. Credit: Avanti

This is where ESA and Airbus become very interested observers.

The Avanti-ESA-Airbus Hylas 3 is more than three years late, and Avanti has since changed management. The relevance of Hylas 3 to its business has declined over the years.

Avanti has said it is only interested in negotiating with Arabsat a compromise in which each operator tailors is Ka-band footprint to avoid the other’s.

This should not be impossible, as Arabsat’s Ka-band ambitions are centered in Saudi Arabia and the Arabsat member state territories in northern Africa. Avanti is more interested in Ka-band’s potential in sub-Saharan Africa.

If that kind of compromise cannot be worked out, Avanti will have a hard choice to make.

The company owes ESA a substantial sum of money to cover Avanti’s share of the cost of the Hylas 3 operation. If Arabsat is about to render Hylas 3 unusable by Avanti, the British operator will be tempted to walk away from the project or try to place the satellite at some other orbital slot.

If that happens, ESA and Airbus will be left to sort out who pays how much over the next 15 years, and what orbital-slot compromises can be made to minimize damage to the Airbus SpaceDataHighway laser data-relay service.