London-based Inmarsat, the UK’s largest satellite operator, has announced a major expansion of its network.
The firm is buying three new spacecraft to augment its Global Xpress system, which provides connectivity to on-the-move and out-of-the-way users, such as those on ships, planes and oil rigs.
European aerospace giant Airbus will build the satellites.
Inmarsat says their novel technologies will make it easier and faster to react to market developments.
For example, rather than taking up a “fixed” position in the sky, as is the case with all the company’s current platforms, these new spacecraft will be designed with the expectation that they might have to move around to match demand.
Their telecommunications payloads will also be fully reconfigurable through software updates – not something that is generally practised today.
Airbus aims to have the first of the new satellites ready for launch in 2023 and says the compact and stackable design means that more than one spacecraft can go up on the same rocket.
Neither the manufacturer nor the operator are revealing a price. Inmarsat says merely that the cost will fit within its capital expenditure schedule.
It has a contract for three platforms but an option for more in the future.
Inmarsat made financial headlines earlier this month when its shareholders accepted a $3.3bn (£2.6bn) take-over by a group of buyers known as the Bidco consortium.
What’s different about these satellites?
The new telecommunications satellites are a brand new concept that Airbus calls “OneSat”.
This incorporates R&D innovations that were sponsored by the European, UK and French space agencies.
The satellites are described as modular in design and are said to be much quicker to assemble than previous platforms.
They are also “all electric”, meaning everything onboard is solar-powered, including their propulsion systems. These use highly efficient ion engines to control the movement of the spacecraft.
But more significant still is the adaptability of the design.
Traditional large satellites are configured on the ground for specific tasks. This might mean, for example, transmitting only on certain radio frequencies with shaped antennas to carve out the necessary ground “footprint”.
The smaller OneSats, on the other hand, can have their coverage, capacity and frequency all altered through software amendments.
Their antennas can also be re-shaped electronically.
Why is this approach so important for Inmarsat?
Inmarsat took a decision at the beginning of the decade to refocus much of its business on communications links that work in the Ka part of the radio spectrum.
These faster connections have been provided through a network the space company calls Global Xpress, or GX – and they’ve been very popular with customers.
The firm has already launched four large Ka satellites to service GX and has a fifth one on order.
The new trio will bring further additional capacity, but Inmarsat also intends to use the Airbus spacecraft in a different way.
They will not sit fixed over a specific region for their entire lives like the current generation.
Rather, the company sees these latest GX spacecraft as a kind of rapid reaction force that can be shifted around the globe to overlay existing services and meet new market trends, wherever they arise.
“Worldwide demand for mobile broadband connectivity has grown exponentially in recent years and we expect this trend to continue. This next phase in the evolution of our GX network provides a dynamic and powerful answer to the challenges created by this growth in demand, building on the strong foundations we have already established,” explained Inmarsat CEO Rupert Pearce.
“Significantly, our new approach in collaboration with Airbus and other technology partners will provide us with much greater velocity and agility with which to respond to future competitive challenges and to adopt new technologies on a highly dynamic, rolling basis.”
Airbus will prepare the various modules that go into the production of the satellites at its centres across Europe, but the UK factories at Portsmouth and Stevenage are sure to have key roles.
Thursday’s announcement will be very welcome news to those factories given how flat orders have been in the sector over the past few years.