WASHINGTON — Satellite communications firm SES on Friday launched two Boeing-built broadband satellites meant to deliver advanced communications to government and commercial customers.
The spacecraft are the first two of an 11-satellite constellation called O3b mPOWER, which is managed by Luxembourg-based SES. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket carried the payloads from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
O3b mPOWER builds on the capabilities of the company’s baseline O3b system, featuring a flexible, fully digital payload and offering more capacity to meet growing customer demand for secure communications services in hard-to-reach locations. That feature is particularly important for military users, according to SES CEO Steve Collar.
“What they’re looking for is multi-orbit, secure, dedicated, sovereign-type services,” he told reporters during a Dec. 16 pre-launch briefing. “When we were designing the capability, we were very, very mindful of how we would enhance the use for governments around the world.”
The need for satellite communications to support military operations has grown in recent years and has been particularly apparent in the war in Ukraine, where forces are reliant on services provided by SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, a network of more than 3,200 communication satellites that provide broadband internet. In October, SpaceX CEO Elong Musk said the company would no longer fund Ukraine’s use of Starlink. He later reversed course and is in discussion with the U.S. Department of Defense about future funding for the effort.
O3b provides services similar to those of Starlink, but with a notable difference: Rather than operate from low Earth orbit at 1,200 miles above the atmosphere — as the SpaceX constellation does — the spacecraft will reside at a higher altitude in medium Earth orbit, between about 1,200 and 22,000 miles above sea level.
That higher vantage point means the O3b, and now O3b mPOWER can operate with fewer satellites than a low Earth orbit network.
The U.S. Department of Defense signed a five-year, $516-million agreement with SES in 2018 for O3b satellite communication services. That contract expires next year. Collar declined to comment on plans to renew the agreement or sign a new deal that would include the expanded mPOWER capabilities.
SES expects O3b mPOWER to be operational in the third quarter of 2023, after the company’s second launch, which will include four more satellites.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.