MIAMI — At first glance, the failure of an automated resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) might not be immediately relevant to better inflight wifi for your travels.
Yet, much as with the late May failure of a Khrunichev-International Launch Services (ILS) Proton rocket from the Russian cosmodrome at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, Sunday’s failure of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida will have a knock-on effect on future launches — and those include several key satellites to boost speeds, bandwidth and coverage in the US and worldwide.
“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk stated soon after the explosion, although he did note that the “data suggests [a] counter-intuitive cause.” The actual cause is still under investigation.
Let’s be clear: the failure of any launch system (even if unmanned) is regrettable, and Airways’ sympathy is certainly with the SpaceX team currently working to determine the cause.
Yet the impacts remain. Until the issue can be identified, the timing of future launches of the SpaceX program is in doubt, and with the Proton launch system already under a cloud that leaves the European ten-nation Arianespace alone as the major international satellite launch provider.
The failure at this stage of the Falcon program is especially significant given that the larger Falcon Heavy system is (or perhaps was) due to be launched with a mission containing the ViaSat-2 satellite in a “late summer 2016 launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida”. ViaSat provides the fastest currently available inflight Internet to jetBlue’s A320 family aircraft and United’s Boeing 737 jets.
ViaSat-2 and its Ka-band beams will offer 2.5 times the capacity of the already-speedy ViaSat-1, and has evolved past the current generation of spot-beam technology. ViaSat-2 is a key part of the Ka-band constellation for the near future, offering redundancy for the continental US market, extending coverage over the US, Canada, north Atlantic routes as far as Ireland and the western UK, the Caribbean, and much of northern Latin America.
SpaceX is also key to the ambitions of ViaSat partner Eutelsat, which intends to “serve Latin American customers in the video, telecommunications and government sectors” with its 117 West B satellite, which also includes Ku-band provision for the region plus redundancy and additional coverage for a significant part of North America.
ABS will also be affected, particularly with its ABS-2A Ku-band satellite that “will serve India,
South East Asia, Russia, Sub-Sahara Africa, and GCC/Afghanistan region.”
Moreover, the recent series of launch failures across providers after a string of successes mean losses of satellites, which must be rebuilt, and a likely increase in insurance costs for launches as well. Demand for inflight connectivity is higher than ever, yet providing the satellites that meet that demand continues to be difficult.
“Space is hard,” noted ISS commander Scott Kelly after the SpaceX incident, with former commander Chris Hadfield adding that there are “serious ramifications for Space Station resupply. Good thing it’s international”. With more options available for ISS resupply than currently provisioning satellite launches, the impact may be felt more strongly a few hundred miles closer to home aboard the flight this year or next that you were hoping might have connectivity on board.