ViaSat lofts world's most powerful communications satellite into orbit

Hitches ride with Ariane after SpaceX drops the ball

American comms specialist ViaSat is set to put the world's most powerful communications satellite into orbit on Thursday afternoon atop an Ariane rocket.

The launch – scheduled for 1645 PDT (Friday 2345 UTC) from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana – will see the 6,418kg (14,149lb) Boeing-built ViaSat 2 sent up into geostationary orbit to provide high-speed data coverage from Northern and Central America to Istanbul, and for aircraft flying across the Atlantic.

"We did have a contract with SpaceX to use the Falcon Heavy lifter for ViaSat 2," the firm's president Rick Baldridge told The Register.

"When SpaceX realized it wasn't going to hit its targets for the Heavy, we got a space on Ariane instead. But we're rooting all of them on; we'd like to see SpaceX and Blue Origin be successful."

The ViaSat 2 launch would have needed the Falcon Heavy because it's a very weighty bit of kit and needs to be positioned high up in the Clarke orbit at 69.9 degrees west longitude for maximum coverage. Unlike some satellite companies, ViaSat is betting on having large, high-bandwidth satellites positioned over key areas of demand rather than a massive network of low-Earth orbit hardware forming a mesh over the planet.

"Smaller satellites spend a lot of time over parts of the earth that don't have demand and they can't reallocate that capacity to other areas," he explained. "A large proportion of the population lives in a small number of locations and we'd rather have the ability to go where the demand is."

So far North America is the biggest market, with Europe and South America coming on strongly with a lot of demand for video. Asia should be huge, but there are regulatory concerns from governments – notably China, which wants to avoid internet access that doesn't pass through its Great Firewall.

ViaSat 2 will double the bandwidth of the space comms company's existing satellites and will provide seven times the range of broadband coverage. The satellite's multiple antennas can handle up to 300Gbps of traffic, and there is more kit on the way that will extend that farther.

Looking ahead, ViaSat wants to loft another trio of satellites into geostationary orbit over the next three or four years, which will give it massive capacity across the entire world. These will be able to trade bandwidth and ensure solid and reliable speeds across the globe.

One area where ViaSat is hoping to pick up major business is with airlines looking to offer fast and reliable data links to bored fliers. One potential fly in the ointment, though, is that the US is considering banning laptops on flights because of security fears. Baldridge said this was most likely going to be a "blip" that would be fixed with better security scanning.

In the meantime, ViaSat 2 is expected to stay in orbit for at least 14 years. The satellite uses a mix of chemical and xenon propulsion to stay on station and should be beaming data back and forth for as long as might be necessary to satisfy the global demand for cat videos. ®

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