Viasat’s Arizona site is a hotspot for cutting-edge satellite communications technology

From phased array antennas to entire satellite payloads, the Tempe team is poised for impressive growth

Workers assembling a portion of the ViaSat-3 satellite in Tempe, AZ
Viasat employees at our Tempe, AZ facility work on a portion of the first ViaSat-3 satellite

Anyone who’s visited Viasat’s campus in Tempe, Arizona in the last few years can tell you we’ve been growing. The most visible manifestation of that is the addition of a building large enough to accommodate a high bay where we can build satellite payloads. It’s a big move for Viasat to go from designing those payloads from the past, when we had other companies build them, to doing it all ourselves.

We have other growth plans in the works as well, including an agreement with the Arizona State University Research Park to expand our current footprint. While some parts of Viasat — and many other companies — have scaled back their physical locations with the move to hybrid and at-home work, here in Tempe we need more room for one simple reason: We build stuff!

Alongside large projects like the payloads for three upcoming ViaSat-3 as well as future ViaSat-4 satellites, we’re also working on the payload for a much smaller satellite called “XVI” for military communications that go beyond-line-of-sight.

In addition, we’re focused here on other crucial technologies that, in my mind, truly represent the future of the satellite industry. One of these falls under a category we call “multifunctional systems,” or MFS. If you think about a typical satellite network today, there’s a space component and a ground component and they’re pretty much wedded to one another. For a number of reasons, you can’t use a ground terminal designed to pair with one satellite and use it for another in a different area of space. Nor can you get that Earth-space link to work if they’re on two different wavelengths or frequencies.

But what if you could? That’s what MFS is all about, and at the heart of it is a different kind of antenna called “phased array.” Where a traditional antenna is either fixed in one place or mechanically steered — as is the case on aircraft, ships, and other moving things — a phased array antenna is able to steer its beams electronically.

So why is this important? One great example is with low-Earth orbit satellites, or LEOs, which, as the name implies, are much closer to the Earth than the large communications satellites in geostationary orbit over 23,000 miles high (GEO). That great distance allows them to “see” a third of the planet, whereas a LEO satellite can only view a small part of the Earth’s surface. Because of that, you need a lot of them to cover the same amount of ground. And while GEO satellites appear stationary in the sky because the high orbit parallels the Earth’s rotation, LEOs pass overhead quickly, essentially rising and setting as the signal is handed off to the next one.

With a phased array antenna, you can steer the beam to track that satellite as it passes overhead, and grab the signal from the next one coming over the horizon.

Here’s another scenario where phased array can do something pretty amazing: Say you’re in a military jet that needs to be in constant communication with the ground, and even as the aircraft moves, it still needs to stay connected. That electronically steered beam not only allows the beams to track from the jet to the satellite, it also has the capability to switch between different types of satellite frequencies — from Ka-band to Ku-band, to C-band, for example. This is a capability we know the U.S. Government is interested in for its aircraft, and it’s easy to see why.

I’ve got one more: Imagine how powerful it would be to allow LEOs and GEOs to communicate with each other. That kind of cross-linking has the potential to greatly amplify the power of the network by speeding uplinks and downlinks since you’re not wholly dependent on the ground connection. Again, those steerable beams are what make it possible, and we work closely with other teams at Viasat — particularly in our Duluth, GA and Lausanne, Switzerland offices — to advance phased array technology for the world ahead.

It’s sometimes hard to believe how much our Tempe campus has grown. Originally, this was a company called U.S. Monolothics that specialized in terminals for Ka-band satellite networks. After Viasat acquired the company in 2001, the focus remained on RF design until 2009, when much of our work shifted to space electronics. We had a lot of expertise on staff already in place, so we set out to build our capabilities in that area.

All of that led to where we are today, able to build our own payloads on site. It marked a pretty significant change that was not without its challenges, but we learned a great deal during the construction of the facility itself as well as with the first ViaSat-3 payload.

Our long history in this field of communications positions Viasat well when it comes to integrating all of these parts to create a robust network that can do a great many different things for a wide variety of applications. We have a ton of experience with military communications equipment such as our MIDS program, and all that combined with our more recent expertise with flying hardware and phased array really sets us up for a very interesting and profitable road ahead.

Ken Crawford is vice president and general manager at Viasat’s Tempe, AZ campus.