OneWeb Taps Airbus To Build 900 Internet Smallsats

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This story was updated June 19

LE BOURGET, France — Start-up satellite Internet-delivery company OneWeb LLC on June 15 announced that Airbus Defence and Space of Europe would be prime contractor for OneWeb’s 648-satellite constellation of Internet delivery satellites.

The first of the satellites, each weighing about 150 kilograms, is scheduled for launch in 2018. OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, must begin broadcasting in its selected Ku-band frequency by 2019 to maintain its regulatory status at the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency that assigns orbital slots and broadcast frequencies.

Airbus and OneWeb said the arrangement – it is not yet a contract – calls for the two companies to select a satellite manufacturing facility on U.S. soil to build most of the 900-satellite order, which includes ground and in-orbit spares. The first 10 will be designed and built at Airbus’s Toulouse, France, facility.

Industry officials in the past month had said Airbus had made what for some was a surprisingly focused and aggressive effort to win the OneWeb business. Airbus officials had said their company’s background in building aircraft and helicopters gave it a built-in advantage over other prospective contractors insofar as Airbus is used to building high-tech systems in large series.

OneWeb Space Systems Director Brian Holz evoked Airbus’s heritage in aviation in a June 15 statement, saying:

“Combining innovation and large-volume manufacturing techniques from its A350 aircraft production, with a rich history of building extremely reliable high-performance space systems, Team Airbus will help us deliver the OneWeb system on time, providing reliable connectivity for our customers.”

Airbus Defence and Space said in a statement that the company would have no further comment about the OneWeb agreement, which apparently falls short of a contract, beyond what it said in its announcement of the deal.

In an interview, Holz said the OneWeb satellites would operate in near-polar orbit at around 1,200 kilometers in altitude, and that the final number of operational satellites likely would rise over time. The current design calls for 648 spacecraft plus spares.

Holz said OneWeb has designed the system to strictly follow orbital debris-mitigation guidelines for removing satellites from orbit and, for low-orbit satellites, assuring that they reenter the Earth’s atmosphere within 25 years of retirement.

“We intend to be a very good steward of space,” Holz said. “Deorbiting the satellites was a big driver in our design considerations. We do not intend to create a lot of junk.”

Greg Wyler (black shirt) talks with French President Francois Hollande June 15 at the Paris air show, surrounded by, among others, Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders and Airbus Chief Strategy Officer Marwan Lahoud. Credit: Airbus
Greg Wyler (black shirt) talks with French President Francois Hollande June 15 at the Paris air show, surrounded by, among others, Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders and Airbus Chief Strategy Officer Marwan Lahoud. Credit: Airbus

Airbus announced in early June that it had created a venture capital fund in Silicon Valley, with initial capital of $150 million, to invest in promising enterprises, but it was unclear whether this fund would be used to finance the satellite plant.

OneWeb has not disclosed how much money it has raised or the identity of its investors beyond Virgin Group Chief Executive Richard Branson and computer-chip manufacturer Qualcomm, with the latter likely involved in the design of OneWeb’s user terminal modems.

OneWeb has said that, once the production facility hits its full run rate, each satellite will be produced for around $500,000.

OneWeb presumably will seek export credit agency financing and in principle would be able to solicit help from both the U.S. Export-Import Bank and its French equivalent, Coface.

But both agencies require a certain amount of work to be done in their nations before giving aid to a project. With only 10 satellites built in France, it is not certain that Coface would enter the OneWeb picture in any sizable way aside from a possible launch provided by the Arianespace consortium of Evry, France.

On the U.S. side of the financing, the Export-Import Bank is still fighting for survival in the U.S. Congress, which must re-authorize the bank by July 1 to keep it in business.

Holz said that while OneWeb ultimately is a likely candidate for export credit-agency financing, the company has other funding options if the U.S. agency were no longer available.