Airbus books Loft Orbital order for Florida satellite factory

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TAMPA, Fla. — Condosat operator Loft Orbital has ordered more than 15 satellite buses from Airbus in a deal announced Jan. 14 that calls for building the initial OneWeb-derived platforms in France before shifting serial production to Florida.

Loft Orbital expects to receive the buses in 2023, leveraging the automated production line that Airbus is using to build hundreds of satellites for OneWeb’s broadband megaconstellation under the Florida-based Airbus OneWeb Satellites joint venture.

Work to modify the Arrow satellite platform, including extending operational life and broadening the range of capabilities beyond broadband, will initially take place at Airbus facilities in Toulouse, France.

After building the first few in France, Airbus said the remaining Arrow-derived platforms would be made at scale by Airbus OneWeb Satellites (AOS). The joint venture’s automated production line in Merritt Island, Florida, was designed to produce up to two satellites per day.

Even with Airbus expected to fulfill most of Loft Orbital’s order out of the Florida factory, the contract is a solid win for France, according to a senior French government official quoted in the Airbus news release. 

“I am very pleased that the project presented by Loft with the support of Airbus relies on French suppliers, more than 60% of the value being created in France,” Bruno Le Maire, French minister for the Economy, Finances and the Recovery, said in the news release.

San Francisco-based Loft Orbital buys satellite buses from multiple vendors and outfits them with payloads flown on behalf of customers looking to avoid the hassle and expense of owning satellites. 

Loft Orbital co-founder and CEO Pierre-Damien Vaujour said that, while the company plans to use its initial Arrow procurement “to deliver to our customers who have ordered services based on a few tens of satellites, we see this as an opportunity to offer much larger constellation services to governments and companies worldwide.”

He told SpaceNews in an interview that the Arrow-derived bus will become its “workhorse satellite platform” as it leverages the AOS factory’s scalability and heritage.

Scaling up

The AOS announcement comes shortly after Loft Orbital said it had ordered additional buses from LeoStella, after securing undisclosed customers looking to fly payloads in 2023. 

LeoStella was already under contract to build a bus for a satellite that Loft Orbital plans to deploy in the first half of this year. A separate Loft Orbital satellite slated to launch toward the end of 2022 will use a bus supplied by Blue Canyon Technologies. 

Loft Orbital is currently flying two condosats with buses built by LeoStella and Blue Canyon. 

According to Vaujour, Loft Orbital’s deal for Arrow marks the first time a mass-manufactured megaconstellation bus has been sold to a commercial third party for flying non-broadband payloads.

“It’s a completely different scale compared to everything we or the industry have done before,” he said.

Vaujour said Loft Orbital expects to take delivery of the Arrow-derived buses in 2023, using at least some of them for satellites slated to launch later that year on behalf of a backlog of customers. 

“We’ve secured well in excess of $100 million of bookings,” Vaujour said, adding that Loft Orbital had been “turning down customers because we just don’t have enough bandwidth.”

He said the Arrow contract also has options “with set prices where we can just trigger a purchase order for any number of additional satellites.”

Plans to scale up Loft Orbital’s business with a rush of satellite bus orders come after the company secured $140 million in a funding round completed in October and led by investment giant BlackRock.

Florida factory future

Loft Orbital’s order provides some backlog for a Florida factory facing uncertainty after OneWeb executives made conflicting statements about where it intends to build its planned second generation of satellites. In early December, OneWeb’s head of government affairs said the company, which is partially owned by the British government, planned to open a U.K. factory to build the second-gen satellites. The following week, OneWeb’s chief technology officer said no decision had been made. 

The first six of OneWeb’s first-generation satellites were built in Toulouse, before moving serial production to AOS in Florida. With 394 OneWeb satellites now in orbit, AOS is building 254 more to complete the 648-satellite constellation OneWeb expects to have in orbit before the end of the year.

An Airbus official in the U.S. told SpaceNews it has “no plans to close the Florida factory.” The $85 million facility, located near major NASA and U.S. Space Force launch facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida, opened in 2019.

“We remain committed to supporting OneWeb’s future endeavors including Generation 2 satellites and those of our US Government and industry customers,” the Airbus U.S. official said via email. “Airbus will continue to use its manufacturing hubs in the US, France and the UK to be a leading provider of satellites and their payloads for the global market.”

The Airbus U.S. official said AOS is also “performing on other subcontracts to Airbus for our US government and industry customers.”

These include work on two satellite buses for the Blackjack LEO constellation, under a contract the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Canadian operator Telesat last year.

Sara Shell, public relations manager for Space Florida, the State of Florida’s aerospace economic development agency, said she could not go into details about the facility’s future because of non-disclosure agreements with both OneWeb and Airbus.

However, she said: “It is safe to say that Space Florida is confident the facility here at the Cape will continue to produce satellites for multiple customers for many decades into the future.”