OneWeb for one whole world

28 June 2017

Credit: OneWeb
Credit: OneWeb

European aerospace giant Airbus and its partner, OneWeb, have begun the production of a satellite mega-constellation with the aim to bring broadband links to every part of the globe.

The OneWeb network will comprise at least 600 spacecraft in the first instance, but could eventually encompass more than 2,000. The aim of the OneWeb network, whose aim is to comprise at least 600 spacecraft in the first instance – and ultimately over 2,000, is to deliver broadband links from orbit to every corner of the globe. The project particularly aims for every school to have a connection.

Building so large a constellation requires a step-change in the manufacture of satellites – especially for Airbus.

It can take Europe’s biggest space company many months and hundreds of millions of dollars to build some of today’s specialist platforms. But for the OneWeb venture, it is all about high volume and low cost.

That means new assembly line methods akin to those in factories producing cars and planes. The idea is to turn out three units per shift at well less than a million dollars a piece.

The chief executive of Airbus, Tom Enders, concedes he initially thought the OneWeb concept to be fantasy: "Everything in space as you know traditionally has been 'gold-plated'; it had to work perfectly, [and have] the most expensive materials, etc.

"Here, we’ve had to go other ways, to be really commercial and calculating according to the target cost because that is very decisive in the whole business case for OneWeb."

Airbus and OneWeb have inaugurated the first assembly line in Toulouse, France. Two further lines will be set up in a soon-to-open factory complex in Florida.

The first 10 satellites to come off the Toulouse assembly line have a deadline to launch in April next year. Another batch will follow into orbit around November. And then the launch cadence will kick on apace.

The establishment of the OneWeb constellation requires the greatest rocket campaign in the history of spaceflight. More than 20 Soyuz vehicles have been booked to throw clusters of 32-36 satellites into a web some 1,200km above the Earth. Moreover, there should be just under 300 on station by the end of 2020, the start of 2021; more than 600 about a year or so later; and then over 800 by the middle of the decade.

Credit: BBC News

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