The heaviest spacecraft SES has ever ordered was successfully launched by Arianespace, laying the groundwork for the multi-orbit network which is witnessing increased demand from the commercial aviation clients. The all-electric SES-17 satellite, which weighs around 6,400 kilograms, was launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket at 10:10 a.m. Eastern on October 23, together with the Syracuse 4A communications spacecraft for France’s military.

At separation, their aggregate mass was 10,264 kg, making it Arianespace’s heaviest mission to date. With a 1.5-meter fairing extension, the Ariane 5 also was the tallest Arianespace ever has launched, standing at 56.4 meters. SES-17, built by Thales Alenia Space in Europe, is one of the first fully software-defined satellites, with roughly 200 spot beams that can be reprogrammed in orbit to respond to changing mission requirements.

The digital transparent processor (DTP) onboard SES-17, according to SES, will be the most powerful in space. The satellite will reach its orbital slot of 67.1 degrees West in mid-2022, spanning the Americas, Atlantic Ocean, and Caribbean. SES-17 will be “the anchor for our expansion for the next many years,” according to SES CEO Steve Collar, who spoke to the media on October 20.

Collar said clients will be allowed to roam as necessary from SES-17 to O3b mPower, the updated broadband constellation it plans to start dispatching in the medium Earth orbit (MEO) slightly earlier next year for the lower latency services, thanks to a virtualized ground network established in collaboration with cloud giant Microsoft. SES-17’s primary objective, according to Collar, will be to serve the aviation business, and it has already taken on in-flight connectivity supplier Thales InFlyt Experience as the anchor customer.

Craig Olson, who is the vice president of Thales InFlyt Experience predicts “upwards of perhaps 10 times the level of demand that we’ve seen, even in the recent times” for in-flight connection as airlines shift to a free-to-client business model within the next 3 to 5 years. Despite the increased demand, Olson claims that SES-17 “will be capable of serving upwards of 50% of the whole traffic that would travel in the Americas by itself.” He went on to say that the in-flight connectivity (IFC) business is intensely competitive, with a slew of competitors vying for a piece of the pie.

As airlines shift away from charging customers directly for Wi-Fi to entice business, Collar estimates penetration per aircraft to climb from the midteens to 70-80 percent over the next three to five years. Spirit Airlines, which concentrates on the North American marketplace, will serve as the launch airline for Thales InFlyt Experience’s SES-17 services. Olson declined to comment on the company’s other airline partners. Spirit and other airlines plan to return to profitability before the close of 2022, a year earlier than the market projected during the pandemic, he said, indicating that future demand will be strong.

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