Kennedy Space Center, Florida – Later today, May 15, 2017, SpaceX is scheduled to put an Inmarsat communications satellite into orbit. Is this a turning point for both companies and the space industry at large? Certainly, SpaceX wants to permanently change the status quo.
The Inmarsat-5 F4 satellite is expected to lift off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at around 7:21 p.m. EDT. F4 will join three other Ka-band satellites for Inmarsat’s Global Xpress (GX) constellation, offering broadband services around the globe.
Due to the weight of the F4 satellite, SpaceX is going to empty the fuel tanks on the Falcon 9 (F9) first stage to put it into orbit, so a dramatic flyback and landing isn’t in the cards today. Such flights are expected to be a rare exception rather than the rule in the future. SpaceX has recovered a number of F9 first stages and is starting to recycle the “flight-proven” hardware into service on commercial launches, with the long-term goal of drastically lowering launch costs. Larger satellites such as the Inmarsat-5 will go up on the Falcon Heavy, expected to make its first flight in the fall of this year. All three of Falcon Heavy’s first stages will fly back for landing and reuse, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has suggested that it may be possible for its second stage to be recovered and reused as well.
Hardware reuse translates into satellite launch moving from unique events into airplane-like operations, with flights taking place on a regular basis. SpaceX is already starting to ramp up its flight rate and is on a schedule to launch at least once every two weeks through the end of the year. Musk has stated it should be possible to refly a Falcon 9 first stage with minimal refurbishment – essentially gas-and-go – up to 10 times with a F9 first stage capable of up to 100 flights with proper care and maintenance.
But what do you do with a fleet of rockets capable of flying at least every week or more? SpaceX says it wants to put a fleet of thousands of satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to create a massive high-speed broadband network that would compete with existing satellite providers and even traditional fiber, potentially providing service with lower latency.
Building such a network puts SpaceX in competition with its customers – such as Inmarsat. Company executives point out SpaceX is not unique in getting into the services business. Airbus has an investment in OneWeb while Boeing is making noises to launch its own service. So long as “conflicts of interest” are managed, there’s not a problem in working with SpaceX or any other company for launching and building satellites if it is also trying to run a services business.
The door could also be open for Inmarsat and SpaceX to become partners in the future. Inmarsat has been briefed in a preliminary way on the technical nature of the SpaceX broadband network, but isn’t convinced the business case closes. Company officials didn’t rule out the prospects of using SpaceX’s network in the future and suggested the possibility of roaming agreements between the services.
For now, Inmarsat is sticking with its existing business model of launching its own satellites and owning its own network. Now that the company has established global coverage with the large Inmarsat-5 GX series satellites with an expected lifetime of 15 years, it can move to launching smaller satellites to add supplemental coverage and services as needed, effectively right-sizing as business grows. The company is very bullish on Ka-band and its ability to offer global broadband services, with airplane connectivity one of its more significant verticals. If you are flying overseas, there’s a good chance Inmarsat is providing the Internet connection.
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