OneWeb mulls debris-removal service for failed satellite
TAMPA, Fla. — OneWeb is considering options to remove one of its broadband satellites from low Earth orbit after it failed following a software issue last year.
“We are looking at all potential suppliers to address de-orbit as and when the tech is safe,” said Chris Mclaughlin, OneWeb’s chief of government, regulation and engagement.
The failure was disclosed in a OneWeb financial report filed Nov. 17. That report noted OneWeb has deployed 358 satellites at 1,200 kilometers through 11 launches, “with loss of only one satellite to date.”
Mclaughlin said the failure of OneWeb’s SL41 satellite resulted from “a software issue right at the end of the Orbit raise.”
That software issue has since been fixed from the ground for the other satellites in the operator’s growing network, a OneWeb official added.
The failed satellite, according to an industry source, was one of 34 launched Feb. 6, 2020, from Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket. OneWeb’s satellites are being built in Florida by OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture with Airbus Defence and Space.
OneWeb has a partnership formed earlier this year with debris-removal startup Astroscale under ESA’s Sunrise program, which awarded OneWeb and Astroscale funding in May for a satellite to demonstrate technologies including space junk removal.
The OneWeb official added: “We are working with ESA Sunrise and, by extension, Astroscale and others to determine how best to remove a failed satellite when technology permits. It’s very early days.”
The loss of a single satellite is not critical in a megaconstellation like OneWeb’s with built-in redundancy. OneWeb plans to deploy nearly 650 satellites by the time it rolls out global broadband services next year.
“OneWeb’s network is designed for global coverage with redundancy planned for and built into the network,” the OneWeb official said via email.
“OneWeb can offer global coverage with 588 satellites however plans for redundancy with 50+ spares.”
The U.K.-headquartered startup has an insurance policy worth more than $1 billion that covers its satellite launches, which typically deploy 36 satellites at a time. However, the policy only spans the launch phase of the constellation’s deployment, and does not cover in-orbit failures.
SpaceX, which has claimed to have an in-orbit failure rate of less than 1% (although competitor Viasat disputes that), has also decided it has enough redundancy in its Starlink broadband megaconstellation that it does not need to insure in-orbit operations against satellite failures.
In October, the UK Space Agency awarded Astroscale and Swiss startup ClearSpace contracts totaling $1 million to study a mission to remove two spacecraft from LEO by 2025.
Astroscale and ClearSpace are allowed to pick which two spacecraft to remove, as long as they were sent to orbit under a U.K. license.
It is too early to say whether the failed OneWeb satellite will be a part of a mission that could follow these study contracts, an Astroscale official said.
Following the Phase 0 and A study phases there will most likely be two further phases to refine the mission design with parallel phase B contracts with a detailed concept of operations, costings, manufacturing proposals, and timelines, according to John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale’s U.K. subsidiary.
A final selection will identify the lead industry prime and partners that will develop the mission planned for a 2025 launch.
“We very much hope the UK government will be able to provide a substantial proportion of the mission funds, secured during the ongoing government comprehensive spending review (CSR),” Auburn said in an email.
“This mission is a fantastic opportunity for the UK government to demonstrate leadership in space sustainability and provide vital funding and licencing support for this innovative debris removal mission.”