SpaceX launches Inmarsat-6 F2 in a boost for direct-to-device services

On February 17, SpaceX carried out the launch of a satellite for Inmarsat, expanding the operator’s capacity for partnerships in the developing direct-to-device market.

From Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, a Falcon 9 carrying the British company’s Inmarsat-6 F2 (I-6 F2) satellite took off at 10:59 p.m. Eastern.

After about 32 minutes, I-6 F2 separated from the rocket and will use onboard electric propulsion to reach its geostationary orbit slot over the Atlantic Ocean over the next few months.

The rocket’s first stage successfully landed shortly after launch for reuse, as is now typical for a Falcon 9 mission. A crewed flight to the International Space Station and the launch of a GPS 3 satellite have both been made possible by the booster in the past.

A second Falcon 9 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California was launched earlier in the day by SpaceX to send 51 satellites for its broadband constellation into low Earth orbit (LEO).

I-6 F2, according to Inmarsat, is expected to enter service in 2024 following stringent in-orbit tests.

The satellite is identical to the Inmarsat-6 F1 (I-6 F2), which will begin operations in December 2021 from a geostationary slot over the Indian Ocean following its launch by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan.

The primary purpose of the hybrid Ka-band and L-band payloads on both Airbus-built satellites is to provide mobile connectivity services to the maritime, aviation, and government markets.

Inmarsat chief technology officer Peter Hadinger stated on February 18 that the Ka-band capacity of I-6 F1 will target Southeast Asian demand for high-speed connectivity, while the Ka-band beams of I-6 F2 will address Atlantic Ocean hotspots.

Hadinger claims that Inmarsat’s eight-satellite global ELERA network currently offers twice as much usable L-band capacity in each satellite’s coverage area.

This increase in capacity will primarily support Inmarsat’s business of connecting remote tracking and monitoring devices, as well as the voice and messaging services it already provides through specialized handsets with bulky antennas.

Hadinger stated that I-6 F1 and I-6 F2 could also assist Inmarsat in unlocking additional partnership opportunities in this area as Iridium moves forward with plans to use its L-band for connecting mass market devices and as other operators flock to the direct-to-device opportunity.

“It certainly gives us longevity,” he said, referring to how each satellite is designed to operate for more than 15 years.

“And by giving us additional efficiency in the spectrum, it does improve the number of options we have in terms of lining up with any of these particular direct-to-device” initiatives.

Bullitt, a British smartphone manufacturer, recently announced that it had developed a smartphone that can use Inmarsat’s network to provide narrowband services like text messages outside of cellular coverage.

“The big question then is how much bandwidth do you need [and] do you need to build a purpose-built fleet to do that?” Hadinger said.

“We’re not yet convinced that that is the case, but we have been approached by everybody because we have spectrum.”

In addition, plans for a LEO constellation that could eventually support direct-to-device connectivity are currently under consideration by Inmarsat.