Competition To Build OneWeb Constellation Draws 2 U.S., 3 European Companies

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WASHINGTON — Two U.S. and three European companies have submitted bids to build some 900 small Internet-delivery satellites for OneWeb LLC in a competition that is forcing all of them to revamp their ways of doing business, industry officials said.

The five companies — Airbus Defence and Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, OHB AG, Space Systems/Loral and Thales Alenia Space — all arrive at the competition armed with arguments about how their recent history has given them the needed skills to do the work.

But OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, would rather hear how they are going to escape their status-quo histories as major space hardware contractors and remake themselves into producers capable of producing multiple satellites per month, each with a cost of less than $500,000.

OneWeb has been holding a series of interviews with the five bidders in the past three months. Pending a needed tranche of financing of several hundred million dollars, which industry officials said had not been secured as of March 19, OneWeb is expected to select a winner by mid-April.

OneWeb is not taking the route that SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he will take to build a constellation of several thousand satellites. Musk has said he will create his own satellite production plant in Seattle because he does not trust established satellite manufacturers to be able to engage in serial production in the way SpaceX wants.

OneWeb Chief Executive Greg Wyler said his company has been surprised by the quality of the bids of the five companies, which he said had surpassed OneWeb’s expectations insofar as the bids suggest all five are willing to break almost completely from their past practices.

“They have been astonishingly good,” Wyler said of the bidders, without confirming their names. “This can’t be like anything they’ve ever done before, and their proposals reflect that. They get it.”

Assuming that OneWeb, backed by partner investors Virgin Group and chipmaker Qualcomm, is able to secure the needed early financing, it will form a joint venture with the winning bidder.

OneWeb Chief Technology Officer Dave Bettinger. Credit: iDirect
OneWeb Chief Technology Officer Dave Bettinger. Credit: iDirect

Dave Bettinger, OneWeb’s chief technology officer, declined to say where the joint venture would set up shop. But other industry officials said OneWeb has found a location in the United States that can be converted into a satellite production plant. With OneWeb setting the specifications and overseeing the work, satellite production would begin in time for a first launch in 2017, with most of the satellites launched in 2018.

Bettinger said the choice of a launch service provider would be made a couple of months after the prime contractor selection.

OneWeb satellites, each weighing around 200 kilograms and capable of generating 6 gigabits per second of throughput, would be launched into a 1,200-kilometer orbit.

The satellites are expected to have a contracted design life of five years, but most satellites far outlive their design lives. Even so, OneWeb will need to be in quasi-permanent capital expenditure mode as it modifies satellites during the production phase and prepares for replenishment.

The constellation is composed of 648 satellites. Including ground spares, the architecture would call for a production run of 900 satellites.

Airbus, while known for building larger satellites, owns Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. of Britain, a small-satellite specialist, and has been reorienting itself to meet small-satellite requirements.

Lockheed Martin was prime contractor, with Motorola, for the original Iridium mobile communications satellite constellation. The company has said it is positioning itself to return to the commercial market and as a result has restructured its satellite production to shave time and cost from the process.

OHB of Germany, the smallest of the five bidders, has built its reputation on besting Airbus and Thales in winning a two-part, 22-satellite contract to build Europe’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellites.

Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, California, which like Airbus is better known for large telecommunications satellite platforms, has been diversifying its portfolio under its new owner, MDA Corp. of Canada, and recently was the surprise winner of an 11-satellite order from Google-owned Skybox Imaging.

Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy has had a hand in most of the major constellations built in recent years. It is prime contractor for the 81-satellite Iridium Next, Iridium’s second-generation system, and for O3b Networks’ constellation of 12 satellites. O3b was founded by Wyler.