Investing in Space: Viasat launch adds power and flexibility in satellite broadband competition
CNBC's Investing in Space newsletter offers a view into the business of space exploration and privatization, delivered straight to your inbox. CNBC's Michael Sheetz reports and curates the latest news, investor updates and exclusive interviews on the most important companies reaching new heights. Sign up to receive future editions.
Overview: Satellite staying power
Viasat took a big step toward satellite staying power last weekend, as the long-awaited launch of the first of the ViaSat-3 trio rumbled off the ground (thanks to the "full power" version of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket.)
The feat brings a new punch to Viasat's network, helping it grow its share of the satellite communications market and bolster its existing position against the low Earth orbit challengers such as SpaceX's Starlink, OneWeb and Amazon's Kuiper.
The first of the three planned satellites, the "Americas" satellite, is currently on its way to the distant geosynchronous orbit, with the EMEA (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) and APAC (Asia-Pacific) satellites expected to launch in the coming months. Each satellite is the most powerful communications spacecraft ever launched, with over 1 Terabit per second of capacity, more than triple its ViaSat-2 predecessor.
Earlier this year I sat down with Viasat CEO Mark Dankberg in D.C., and as our scheduled 30-minute conversation stretched into an hour, we discussed what ViaSat-3 means for the company, especially in its strategy versus other LEO players.
"With Viasat-3 we'll have much more bandwidth than we did before… we'll probably have three to four times the bandwidth that we did prior to that in the U.S.," Dankberg said at the time.
The new satellites also give Viasat "a lot of flexibility" in where it aims the bandwidth, Dankberg said. He's particularly keen on growing the company's reach in the in-flight WiFi market, with multiple major commercial airlines — Delta, United, American and Southwest — already on Viasat's roster of clients.
Dankberg sees Viasat-3 as "more successful in business aviation," particularly by adding coverage over the Pacific. And there's opportunity in other transportation sectors, such as trains or maritime.
"We'll have enough bandwidth to serve the markets that we do know, and we want to create some for these others," Dankberg said.
As for Viasat's competitors, Dankberg thinks Amazon "is more methodical" than SpaceX in its approach — "Amazon doesn't have to focus on raising money" — and said he was "a little bit surprised" that Kuiper is going after the consumer internet market, like Starlink has, but expects Amazon to be "very efficient" given its broader internal tech synergies.
- FAA sued by environmental groups over SpaceX's Starship program: Five plaintiffs allege the Federal Aviation Administration violated the National Environment Policy Act in its regulating of SpaceX's rocket program and facility in Texas. – CNBC
- SpaceX removes data restriction for Starlink users, changing a limit at 1 terabyte of monthly data use that "deprioritized" service and updating the four types of service plans it offers. Additionally, SpaceX's customer policy notes that the company reserves " the right to take additional network management measures as necessary," including to "prevent or mitigate network congestion on the Services, including reducing speeds for some or all users." – SpaceX / SpaceX
- SpaceX continues pace toward 100 launches this year, flying a pair of Falcon 9 rockets carrying SES and Starlink satellites, in addition to its Falcon Heavy launch. – SpaceflightNow
- BlackySky spots Chinese airship in satellite image, saying it's "the first and only known public satellite image" of the country testing a lighter-than-air vehicle. The image was taken in November, with BlackSky CEO Brian O'Toole calling it an example of how the company's network can be used to "capture rare events and stay informed about critical areas of interest in real time." – BlackSky
- ESA struggling to deploy antenna on Juice spacecraft as it begins its journey to Jupiter. The Juice spacecraft's RIME antenna, which is for radar to study the surface of Juipter's ice-covered moons, is stuck about a third of the way out. The European Space Agency noted that "Juice is otherwise performing excellently." – ESA
- BlackSky requests permission to move two imagery satellites for an 'emergency,' in a petition asking the FCC to allow the company to move the pair of spacecraft to lower-than-authorized orbits. While the request redacts the specifics around why it's an emergency, it said the lower altitude was due "to the anticipated loss of remaining propellant." – Caleb Henry
- Russia agrees to continue ISS partnership through 2028, with the country's Roscosmos confirming to NASA that it will continue to support International Space Station operations for the next five years. – NASA
- Astrobotic waiting on ULA for updated timeline for first lunar launch: The moon company said its Peregrine vehicle "is assembled and ready for its journey to Florida," but said United Launch Alliance will provide a new date for its first Vulcan rocket launch after completing an investigation into a testing explosion. – Astrobotic
- The Czech Republic signs the 'Artemis Accords,' the 24th country to sign the cooperation principles that NASA and the U.S. State Department set up in 2020. – NASA
- Leading European satellite companies partner to build satellite communications constellation: The group is led by Eutelsat, SES, Hispasat, Airbus and Thales Alenia, and joined by others including Hisdesat, Telespazio and OHB. The combined effort represents the companies' bid for the European Commissions' $6.6 billion plan for a satellite network called IRIS² (Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity and Security by Satellite). – SpaceNews
- Maxar goes private after deal with Advent closes: The company's stock was taken off the New York Stock Exchange, completing the deal that valued the company at about $6.4 billion. – Maxar / CNBC
- Loft Orbital orders laser terminals from Mynaric as part of the SDA (Space Development Agency's) "Experimental Testbed," with deliveries set for early 2024. – Mynaric
- Virgin Orbit gets expedited bankruptcy sale approved, as the D.C. court gave the green light to conduct a sale of the company's assets this month. Formal bids are due May 15. – SpaceNews
- Florida-based LiDAR satellite startup NUVIEW emerges from stealth, with a plan to use spacecraft to "map the entire land surface of the Earth in 3D for the first time ever." – NUVIEW
- Emily Nelson named NASA chief flight director, with the agency promoting her to replace Holly Ridings, who last year was moved to lead the lunar Gateway space station program. Nelson has been with the agency since 1998. – NASA
- Voyager builds out C-suite, hiring Phil De Sousa as CFO and Ashley Donlon as CHRO, as well as promoting Abby Dickes to CMO. The company brought on De Sousa and Donlon from Transamerican Auto Parts, while Dickes was previously EVP of Marketing. – Voyager Space
On the horizon
- May 9: Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic report Q1 results after market close.