Viasat seeks replacement for Ariane 6 for launch of third ViaSat 3 satellite

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated May 1 with schedule for launch of ViaSat 3 APAC.

A full-scale test model of an Ariane 6 rocket stands on its launch pad in French Guiana last year. Credit:
ESA-Manuel Pedoussaut

On the eve of launching its first ViaSat 3 internet satellite on a SpaceX rocket, Viasat says it has moved the launch of an identical spacecraft off of Europe’s long-delayed Ariane 6 rocket, and is considering bids from other rocket companies.

The decision means the launch contract is up for grabs for the third ViaSat 3 internet satellite, the last of a three-satellite constellation Viasat is deploying to provide global broadband connectivity from space.

Viasat announced in 2018 it selected SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, and Arianespace to each launch one ViaSat 3 satellite, awarding launch contracts to three industry leaders.

SpaceX is set to launch the first ViaSat 3 satellite on a Falcon Heavy rocket as soon as Sunday night from Kennedy Space Center, following a series of delays throughout April for technical and weather concerns. The second ViaSat 3 satellite remains booked to launch on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket in late 2023 or early 2024.

The first two ViaSat 3 satellites will provide internet service over the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

But the third ViaSat 3 satellite, designed to serve the Asia-Pacific region and called ViaSat 3 APAC, will no longer launch on Arianespace’s Ariane 6 rocket, according to Dave Ryan, Viasat’s president of space and commercial networks.

The first test flight of the Ariane 6 rocket, which the European Space Agency and ArianeGroup are developing to replace the workhorse Ariane 5, is now scheduled for no earlier than the end of this year, following years of delays. Once the Ariane 6 is flying, payloads from European governments and ESA will be first in line to fly on operational Ariane 6 missions, according to Ryan.

Some of those satellites were moved off of Russian Soyuz rockets in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The Ariane, unfortunately, we had to change because they were having difficulties getting the Ariane 6 ready to go, and then secondly, when the war broke out, some of the launches that they were responsible for on Russian launchers had to be transferred over to their Ariane vehicles,” Ryan said in an interview with CBS News.

“That pushed us later in line,” Ryan said. “So it got so late that we had to put that third satellite out for bid, and we’re evaluating the proposals right now.”

A ViaSat 3 satellite during ground testing. Credit: Viasat

Viasat, based in Carlsbad, California, is deploying the three-satellite ViaSat 3 constellation into geosynchronous orbit to expand the reach of its consumer internet service from the Americas to global markets. Each Boeing-built ViaSat 3 satellite has a launch mass of more than 6 metric tons (more than 13,000 pounds), and carries a Ka-band communications payload developed by Viasat.

The heavy weight of the ViaSat 3 satellites, and Viasat’s preference for launchers to place the satellites close to their final operating altitude, likely mean the company will only consider the most powerful available commercial rockets for the ViaSat 3 APAC mission.

The final Ariane 5 rocket is set for launch in June, and all of ULA’s remaining Atlas 5 rockets are booked until the company retires the vehicle in favor of the new Vulcan Centaur rocket. Japan’s new H3 rocket, which could be technically capable of launching a satellite as heavy as a ViaSat 3 spacecraft, failed on its inaugural launch in February.

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket is not expected to be available for a commercial mission in time for when Viasat says the third ViaSat 3 satellite is scheduled for launch in late 2024.

That leaves SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and ULA’s Vulcan rocket as the most likely contenders for the contract to launch the ViaSat 3 satellite for the Asia-Pacific region.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.