Viasat says latest broadband satellite failed to fully deploy antenna

Stock price plunges after malfunction, as vendor works with part supplier to nail down cause

Satellite operator Viasat is facing an issue with its latest satellite, which appears to have affected antenna deployment and may impact its ability to deliver high-speed broadband.

The ViaSat-3 Americas satellite was launched on April 30 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, and was left to deploy its solar arrays and drift to its final orbital location over the next several weeks.

However, Viasat has now disclosed that an “unexpected event” occurred during deployment of the reflector for its antenna and reckons this may affect the performance of the satellite.

In a statement, Viasat CEO, Mark Dankberg, said his company was disappointed by the development. “We’re working closely with the reflector’s manufacturer to try to resolve the issue. We sincerely appreciate their focused efforts and commitment.”

Viasat and the supplier are conducting a review of the deployment of the reflector to determine what happened and if any remedial measures can be taken.

The satellite is the first of a constellation of three high-capacity Ka-band satellites intended to deliver greater coverage and higher bandwidth broadband for the company and its customers. The ViaSat-3 class are said to be capable of delivering over 1 terabit per second (Tbps) of throughput each, with the flexibility to concentrate that capacity where it may be most needed.

Potential options include redeploying satellites from the rest of Viasat's fleet to help, or reallocating a subsequent ViaSat-3 class satellite to provide additional Americas bandwidth, the company said.

The intended area of coverage for ViaSat-3 Americas had been the Americas, in order to boost the company’s North American fixed broadband business. The other ViaSat-3 launches are set to cover the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) and Asia/Pacific (APAC) regions.

The ViaSat-3 satellites are said to be equipped with the largest antenna reflectors ever carried by a commercial spacecraft. Each reflector is designed to deploy on a long boom, and Viasat said they are a direct derivative of the booms used to deploy the sunshield on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), but are even larger.

Viasat’s market valuation took a hit from the news, with MarketWatch reporting that its stock was down more than 28 percent on Thursday. However, it quoted a financial analyst saying this seemed to have been “largely driven by emotion,” and pointed out the recent acquisition of Inmarsat had provided Viasat with global coverage, which was one of the goals of the ViaSat-3 constellation.

We asked Viasat for the latest update on the situation, and if they had any clues to what may have caused the malfunction. A spokesperson told us: “We had an unexpected event during the deployment of one of the reflectors which may materially impact the ViaSat-3 Americas satellite. We are in the early stages of working through the event and its root cause.”

“We are working contingency plans and will share more information at our earnings call next month. This is one benefit of having the resilience across the Viasat and Inmarsat constellations to be able to address events like this.” ®

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