PARIS — Viasat Inc. selected United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch a Viasat-3 broadband satellite into geostationary orbit sometime between 2020 and 2022 aboard a ULA Atlas 5 in its 551 configuration, the vehicle’s largest variant, Viasat and ULA announced Sept. 10.
It was ULA’s first commercial deal since Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services handed over Atlas 5 commercial sales responsibility earlier this year.
Viasat is building two ViaSat-3 terabit-per-second payloads for the Americas and Europe, the Middle East and Africa and has said it would begin work on a third, to service the Asia-Pacific, before the end of the year. ViaSat has long-standing launch reservations for ViaSat-3 launches with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and the Arianespace/ArianeGroup Ariane 5 rocket.
Boeing Satellite Systems is providing the satellite platforms for the two first ViaSat-3, and Viasat said it will solicit competitive bids for the third. Viasat will be building the payloads for all three.
Dave Ryan, president of Viasat’s Space Systems division, acknowledged that the depressed state of the commercial geostationary-satellite market worked to Viasat’s favor in negotiating with prospective launch-service providers.
Viasat said supplier diversity remains a priority. The win was important for ULA, whose Atlas 5 has long been known for reliability but also known for its high price.
Ryan declined to say whether ULA bested the competition on pricing, but he suggested that all the bids were close when schedule and cost and launch history were factored in.
Ryan discussed the bidding, and the ViaSat-3 program.
ViaSat-3, at least the first two models, will weigh around 6,500 kilograms each?
We’ll be over 6 tons so the launch contract. We’re looking forward to Atlas 551 configuration to put us pretty close to where we need to go.
But the key thing is that ULA has been a reliable provider for a long time. Between their reliability and their flexibility — being able to respond if we have schedule changes — they’ve been very willing to work with us as a partner. They are reliable on their schedule. We haven’t picked which satellite they’ll be the launch provider for, but it’ll definitely be one of the three. We’re looking for diversity in our launch vehicles to make sure that our reliability is going to be there as a mission and a system.
The ULA contract is for a launch between 2020 and 2022. So it could be the yet-uncontracted third ViaSat-3 over Asia?
It could, yes. We have some things in mind right now but if they change we’d like to have the flexibility. They’ve been great to work with and are willing to do that. We’ve had discussions in the past with certainly Arianespace and SpaceX and we’ll continue to be doing that. And we’ll be making more announcements before the end of the year.
You have the pick of the litter now on dates I guess, and also a favorable pricing environment, given the lack of launch orders. The Atlas 5 has been the highest-priced.
It can be, although while I won’t go into the exact numbers, it was a very competitive price and something that was equitable for both of us. You’re right we’re in a good position right now because of where the marketplace is, so it definitely helped in being able to seal the deal with them. Their reliability is undeniable, and I think because of the market conditions they were more flexible than maybe what they would have been in the past on schedule and price.
The other thing I think they’re excited about, and we are too, is that this was the first announced commercial deal for them since [Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services] turned over the reins to ULA.
The ULA statement says Atlas 551 will get Viasat-3 into a high-energy GEO transfer orbit where it can begin on-orbit operation faster than other available launch vehicles. Is that true?
It depends on the rocket, You know what happened on ViaSat-2, where it took us a good amount of time to get up there [six months after its Ariane 5 launch]. This will definitely shorten the circularization process in getting to the right spot.
Is it fair to say you put three companies in the competition for this?
I think you got it.
You recently announced that the first Viasat-3 payload module had arrived from Boeing.
We did, we did. The payload module arrived in our facility in Tempe [Arizona] and we’re busily trying to get our electronics all done so we can put them on there and test them out and then ship it back to Boeing so they can make a spacecraft out of it.
It’s a big deal because it kicks off our integration activities. We’re finalizing our qualification of our electronics and our antennas, and then we do the integration and test of the payload at our place and then we’ll be shipping it back to them. So that’ll definitely be a milestone when we ship it back to them. And then they’ll do the integration with the bus.
It is scheduled to ship back to Boeing in 2019?
Yes, that’ll be later in 2019.
Commercial GEO-orbit launch contracts are rare now. You must have been popular with the launch service providers.
That’s true, launch providers like us right now.
It’s raining hard on the GEO satellite manufacturing side.
It’s actually working to our advantage. We’re pretty confident in our business model and we’ve been making a lot of progress on Viasat-3, which is the third generation of our satellites. Two of them we’re building right now, one is going to be over the Americas and one over Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By the end of this year we should be announcing that we’re well under way on the third one, which would be over Asia.
Asia is complicated.
Each one is a different business case, but overall it really leapfrogs us to be able connect anybody anytime anywhere to the internet and be a global ISP, so we’re pretty excited about it.