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O3b satellites next in Soyuz queue in French Guiana

Posted: April 24, 2014

After correcting a defect discovered on four spacecraft already in orbit, Thales Alenia Space has shipped the second group of four O3b Networks Ltd. broadband communications satellites to French Guiana for final launch preparations and fueling ahead of liftoff in June, officials announced Thursday.

Artist's concept of O3b satellites in orbit. Credit: Thales Alenia Space
The O3b communications satellites are next on the Soyuz launch manifest at the Guiana Space Center in South America, with their arrival at the launch base occurring two weeks before the shipment of Europe's first two fully operational Galileo navigation satellites.

The Galileo satellites are due to be transported to French Guiana on May 7 from the European Space Agency's test center in the Netherlands, according to Mario de Lepine, a spokesperson for Arianespace, which operates the Soyuz launcher from the Guiana Space Center.

The launch of the first two Galileo Full Operational Capability, or FOC, satellites is scheduled for August, de Lepine said.

Although ESA claims the Galileo satellites would be ready for launch before the end of June, officials said Arianespace's decision to launch the O3b satellites first was based on which payload arrived at the launch site first.

The O3b satellites were scheduled for launch in September 2013, and the satellites were already in French Guiana preparing for launch before the four spacecraft were shipped back to the Thales Alenia Space factory in Rome to repair a defect discovered on four identical satellites launched for O3b in June 2013.

One of the four O3b satellites is loaded into a shipping container at Thales Alenia Space in Rome. Credit: O3b Networks
O3b Networks, based in the Channel Islands, never officially disclosed the specific problem detected on the company's first four satellites. Sources familiar with the glitch said the defect was in the spacecraft's communications system, but they declined to reveal details.

The launch of the second set of four O3b satellites is currently scheduled for around June 27, and an additional four O3b payloads are on track for liftoff on another Soyuz flight in November.

"Our satellites are now on their way to French Guiana and will be launched in late June," said Steve Collar, CEO of O3b Networks, in a press release Thursday. "In the meantime, we continue to roll out our commercial service, bringing up customers on the initial constellation."

O3b's name stands for the "other 3 billion," referring to the number of people beyond the reach of fiber connectivity. The satellites are designed to link customers in developing countries with the global Internet infrastructure from a unique orbit about 5,000 miles, or 8,000 kilometers, over the equator.

The O3b satellites depart the Thales Alenia Space factor in Rome. Credit: O3b Networks
The startup company inaugurated service in March with its current fleet of four satellites. Telecom Cook Islands was the first customer to use the satellite-based broadband service, and Collar said in March that O3b had demonstrated high-speed connectivity on Royal Caribbean's cruise liner Oasis of the Seas.

"The reaction that we have had so far from customers and end users has been spectacular. We have been saying that O3b will deliver 'fiber from the sky' and our customers are now telling us that they are experiencing exactly that," Collar said in a statement. "The combination of high speed and low latency is compelling. We can't wait to get our next four satellites in orbit and to bring more customers and services online."

The company says tests with customers have attained throughput of up to 1.6 gigabits per second and round trip latency below 150 milliseconds, beyond the system's designed capabilities.

Because O3b took the first slot in Arianespace's Soyuz manifest, the launch of the first two Galileo FOC satellites is expected some time in August, officials said.

The Galileo navigation system is a joint project between ESA and the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

One of the first two Galileo FOC satellites during testing. Credit: ESA
Arianespace aims to launch four Soyuz rockets from French Guiana this year. One of the missions is already in the books after the successful deployment of Europe's Sentinel 1A satellite in orbit April 3, marking the first launch for the EU's flagship Copernicus Earth observation program.

European officials are pushing to launch six Galileo satellites this year, which may be feasible if Arianespace opts to put four spacecraft on a single Ariane 5 rocket mission at the end of 2014. Officials say the development of a special satellite dispenser to accommodate four Galileo satellites on an Ariane 5 rocket is on track to be ready for launch by December.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.