How does a company get a 650 satellite constellation into operation affordably and before the earliest builds are outdated? It requires a new approach to design and construction. OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture of Airbus and OneWeb, opened their facility in the Space Coast area of Florida this week, with plans to produce two satellites per day when it reaches full scale operation.
OneWeb Satellites and its partners are transforming the satellite and space industry. By producing high quality satellites at a fraction of the cost and schedule of traditional manufacturers, we are not only enabling OneWeb to connect the planet, we are making space dramatically more accessible to everyone.-Tony Gingiss, CEO of One Web Satellites
The new facility will employ industrial-scale techniques to reduce both the construction time and price. This allows the company to realize its goal of a 650 satellite low-earth orbit constellation in approximately two years, with connectivity service available in some global regions as soon as next year.
The rapid construction timeline is also critical for keeping the constellation in service after it launches. The life-expectancy of the satellites is five to seven years. Assuming the company expands to the eventual 1.980 satellites in orbit that means maintaining the construction pace almost in perpetuity. At 40 per month (2/work day) the full complement runs on a four to five year cycle.
Launching the construction push also means gearing up for a relatively high launch cadence starting at the end of the year. The 150kg satellites will launch roughly 30 at a time on Soyuz rockets through a contract with Arianespace. The company also holds launch contracts for the Ariane 6 and Virgin Orbit LauncherOne platforms.
OneWeb’s goal is to deliver connectivity on a global scale, with high speeds and low latency. The company demonstrated 400+ Mbps service with ~30ms latency on its first six satellites earlier this month. That will certainly fit the bill, though getting to global coverage, with the necessary terminals for consumers, is not a cheap proposition. Estimates range from $3bn to $6bn+ to build out the system, with satellite build and launch costs the bulk of that price tag. But the associated hardware on the ground could be a factor, too. If the company subsidizes customer terminals the costs could increase dramatically.
A cheap, reliable, electronically steered antenna will be a critical component of any consumer-focused system. OneWeb Founder and Chairman Greg Wyler has hyped the company’s efforts on that front, though questions remain about the total throughput available on that kit given the limited number of discrete elements on the board. It will not be delivering gigabits or even hundreds of megabits of performance, even if the satellites offer that capacity once in orbit.
In the inflight connectivity market similar antenna are under development, but rather larger versions, hardened for the greater rigors of aviation service. For the 100% electronically steered solutions that deliver better satellite switching performance smaller designs targeting the business aviation segment are expected to hit the market first, especially in the Ka-band range that OneWeb uses. While various vendors are promising solutions on different timelines the technology appears to still be years away, not months, for a certified solution. Given that the constellation won’t be complete until late 2021 based on current estimates that might not be too much of a problem for customers.
More traditional antenna systems have demonstrated their ability to switch between LEO and GEO satellites without dropping connections. Still, over the long term the newer antenna technology will deliver instant satellite switching, lower weight, reduced drag, and other benefits compared to the current generation.
This is a defining moment in the history of OneWeb, and the space industry. With today’s opening, we are one step closer to connecting the unconnected for the benefit of societies all over the world. As we gear up for more satellite launches at the end of the year, this facility will ensure we can begin delivering global connectivity in some areas as early as next year and globally in 2021.– Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb
The shift in to a more standard design, easier to produce quickly, is not unique to the OneWeb solution. The most recent Iridium NEXT constellation enjoyed a much higher speed manufacture process for its satellites than the prior generation, orbiting 75 satellites in a two year window. The original set took 5 years to reach orbit. Even Inmarsat expects its newest tranche of larger GX satellites to see significantly reduced construction time. But those are also much larger and less commonly ordered. They will still be on the order of months for production, not hours.
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