What Happened to Viasat’s New Satellite?
Losing the massive satellite could rock the satellite internet market.
Viasat’s latest satellite launch suffered a catastrophic mechanical failure, and the mission might be a total loss. This doesn’t affect current Viasat customers, but it could have a big impact on the entire satellite internet market.
Satellite internet is one of the fastest changing internet markets, with low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations like Starlink, OneWeb, and Project Kuiper emerging to compete with traditional geosynchronous orbit (GSO) satellites like those used by Viasat and HughesNet. This current crisis comes at an inopportune time for Viasat as it tries to reaffirm the value of massive GSO satellites. The loss of the satellite would be a significant financial and technical challenge for the company moving forward and a cautionary tale for other satellite providers.
A small problem on a big satellite
ViaSat-3 is a planned constellation of three GSO satellites: The first covers the Americas, another covers Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and the third covers Asia and the Pacific. Unlike LEO satellites, which can be around the size of a washing machine, each of the ViaSat-3 satellites is closer in size to a jumbo jet. According to Viasat, ViaSat-3 would be the first terabit-speed broadband satellite system, giving the provider the economy of scale to keep pace with the growing demand and rapid innovation occurring in the satellite internet market.
One of the most crucial parts of this new satellite is its large mesh antenna, built by aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman. This huge parabolic reflector is key to the satellite’s high capacity. A single ViaSat-3 satellite has twice the capacity of all current ViaSat-1 and ViaSat-2 satellites combined. Unfortunately, this antenna malfunctioned as it slowly unfurled after a successful launch.
There are still two more satellites in the ViaSat-3 constellation that have yet to be launched. Only one other satellite, destined for the Europe, Middle East, and Africa area, has an identical reflector to the malfunctioning one on the Americas satellite. The third satellite targeting Asia and the Pacific uses a slightly different antenna. According to SpaceNews, the next ViaSat-3 satellite was scheduled to launch in Fall 2023 with the final satellite scheduled to launch six months later.
What does this mean for Viasat customers?
Fortunately for current Viasat customers, this satellite’s failure should have no immediate impact on their service. The malfunctioning satellite’s primary role, according to Justin Bachman at The Messenger, would have been providing mobile internet access to aviation and maritime vessels. While this almost certainly affects Viasat’s long-term strategy, it shouldn’t directly impact residential internet customers, who connect over ViaSat-1 and ViaSat-2 satellites.
The biggest impact for current and potential Viasat customers is that they won’t see the potential improvements the satellite could have provided. The ViaSat-3 constellation was designed to have dynamic bandwidth allocation to move capacity between its beams depending on the demand. This could have improved reliability and consistency for current Viasat customers’ connections and avoided network congestion during peak usage.
What other effects will this malfunction have?
The failure of the ViaSat-3 antenna is a substantial blow to Viasat’s long-term strategy which, according to their 2023 annual report, focuses heavily on prioritizing the growth of mobile services. Other satellite providers like Starlink and OneWeb are also developing mobile internet solutions, so Viasat must now play catch-up in a market they previously hoped to dominate.
While this is a huge financial blow to Viasat, the mission was insured for $420 million. Although this is less than half of the mission’s $700 million price tag, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, it would still be the largest insurance claim ever made for the loss of a satellite if the mission is deemed a total loss. An insurance official quoted in Ars Technica noted that a claim of this size would be disruptive to the space insurance industry and could even trigger underwriters to leave the space market, making future missions even more financially risky.
Regardless of the potential ripple effects in the insurance market, this failure highlights the risks associated with satellite companies putting all their eggs in one basket. Not only are GSO satellites huge, powerful, and expensive—deploying them tens of thousands of miles away from the earth is a massive undertaking. This extreme distance also makes it virtually impossible to mount a repair mission like the one performed on the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993. You’ve only got one shot to get things right, and if you don’t, the satellite is pretty much on its own.
If large GSO satellites start looking like a risky investment, it could push satellite providers further toward the use of LEO satellites, which are smaller, less expensive, and designed to have a much shorter operational lifespan. This puts a lot of pressure on the remaining two ViaSat-3 launches to demonstrate their terabit-speed connections will be enough to justify continuing development of bigger and better GSO satellites in the future.
What will Viasat do next?
A communication satellite without its main antenna sounds about as useful as a car with no wheels, but Viasat’s not giving up on its satellite just yet. Surprisingly, engineers have been able to get some data through the satellite in its current state, though it remains to be seen how close its throughput can get to its intended 1Tbps speed. As such, the company is waiting until its next earnings announcement in November to announce the implementation of any contingency plans.
In the meantime, engineers are collecting data on the satellite’s systems and trying to determine what options they have. An amateur astronomer quoted in Ars Technica noted that the satellite seems to be regularly changing its orientation, which could be engineers trying to expand and contract the antenna deployment mechanisms by pointing them toward and away from the sun.
If the satellite is unsalvageable, Viasat still has a few options. They could build a replacement from scratch to complete the ViaSat-3 constellation as originally planned. They could also redeploy one of the two remaining satellites to cover the Americas or redeploy another satellite from their current fleet to make up for ViaSat-3’s reduced capacity.
Viasat could also purchase capacity from other satellite operators, either as a temporary or long-term solution to stay on track with its strategic goals.
It’s also worth noting that ViaSat-3 is not the only project Viasat has in the works. In May 2023, it completed its acquisition of Inmarsat, a British satellite company working on its own LEO satellite constellation called Orchestra. Inmarsat also operates its own fleet of satellites that focus on providing service to aviation, maritime, and government partners—the same strategic goals that Viasat was targeting with its ViaSat-3 constellation.
The future of Orchestra is somewhat uncertain after Inmarsat’s acquisition, but in any case, Viasat has a lot of options on how to proceed depending on the ultimate fate of the ViaSat-3 Americas satellite.
Author - Peter Christiansen
Peter Christiansen writes about satellite internet, rural connectivity, livestreaming, and parental controls for HighSpeedInternet.com. Peter holds a PhD in communication from the University of Utah and has been working in tech for over 15 years as a computer programmer, game developer, filmmaker, and writer. His writing has been praised by outlets like Wired, Digital Humanities Now, and the New Statesman.