OneWeb plans April launch break to tweak satellite design

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WASHINGTON — Deployment of OneWeb’s constellation of nearly 650 global broadband satellites is slated to begin in earnest Thursday when it launches its first 34 satellites built at the company’s Florida factory. 

But instead of launching at least 30 more satellites each month until achieving global coverage sometime in 2021, OneWeb now says it intends to pause its launch campaign for a month after one more launch planned for March. Additional short pauses are envisioned after launches planned for May and June expand the constellation to around 140 satellites.

“In April we’re taking a breather because we’ve done a redesign on one of the elements, and we want to give ourselves some time to produce it,” OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel said in an interview. 

He said the April pause won’t delay achieving global coverage by the end of 2021 as previously planned. 

Steckel did not name which element OneWeb resigned, but described the required hardware changes as “minor modifications.” He said the company already completed some changes, most of which involve software used to control the satellites, driven by what OneWeb learned from operating its first six-satellite batch that launched nearly a year ago. 

Thursday’s launch, an Arianespace-provided Soyuz mission delayed from December, is scheduled to lift off at 4:42 p.m. EST Thursday from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

The 34 satellites on board Thursday’s launch will join the six French-built satellites launched last February, and were expected to kick off a monthly launch cadence intended to put up at least 588 satellites before the end of 2021. 

While that’s still OneWeb’s goal, Steckel said the company is not wedded to monthly launches to achieve it. After the launches now planned for March, May and June, OneWeb’s launch schedule gets hazy.

“We’re probably going to do these on a monthly cadence, [but] we may take some months off and then double up,” Steckel said. “We’re playing around with that.”

Whether OneWeb establishes a steady once-a-month launch cadence or opts for more of a surge-and-pause approach after the May and June campaigns, Steckel said the company will take an indefinite launch hiatus once it has 588 satellites in low Earth orbit — the minimum needed to provide global service. Reaching that milestone is expected to take 17 or 18 more Soyuz launches, plus one Ariane 6 mission, he said.

“We need 588 for service, and then we have spares,” he said. “The question is how quickly we want to get those spares up.”

OneWeb’s full initial constellation is 648 satellites, of which 60 are spares. Slowing deployment once the constellation reaches 588 satellites could help OneWeb conserve cash just as the initial global service goes live.

OneWeb has contracts with Arianespace of Evry, France, for 20 Soyuz launches plus the inaugural flight of the Ariane 6 rocket late this year.

OneWeb is building its constellation of hundreds, and potentially thousands, of satellites in Merritt Island, Florida, at a brand-new factory operated by OneWeb Satellites, its joint venture with Airbus Defence and Space. Steckel said the factory reached its target production rate of two satellites per day in January. 

Steckel said OneWeb delayed Thursday’s launch from December because of delays getting the OneWeb Satellites factory up to full production levels. He said there was a larger than expected learning curve from building the first 10 satellites at an Airbus factory in France to producing two satellites per day at the dedicated factory OneWeb Satellites opened in Florida last year. 

“We’ve gotten the kinks out and we’re ready to go,” he said. OneWeb Satellites will continue production “whether or not we’re launching immediately,” he said. 

“We feel really good about these satellites, and we’re looking forward to having another set of satellites ready before the end of the month for March,” he said. 

Steckel said the electric thrusters and solar power systems on OneWeb’s first satellites have exceeded expectations. 

Steckel said the number of satellites launched per Soyuz mission is determined by the location of the launch site. Soyuz launches from French Guiana or Kazakhstan will carry 34 satellites, while launches from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s far east will carry 36 satellites, he said. 

Arianespace’s Ariane 6 flight, now targeted for sometime between October and December, will carry 30 OneWeb spacecraft. 

Steckel said OneWeb still hasn’t decided if it will build 900 first-generation satellites, as planned in 2016, or if it will halt at 648 before starting a second generation. 

The company is ultimately planning a constellation of 1,980 satellites, having recently asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to grant market access for that number of satellites. 

Steckel said OneWeb’s first goal is to reach global coverage, after which it will add more satellites to layer on capacity. 

OneWeb announced in January it is working with British and Israeli antenna company Satixfy on digital payload technology that would allow satellites to steer capacity as needed to respond to customer demand. Steckel said OneWeb is working with Satixfy and others on technology for a series of “phase 2” satellites focused on adding capacity. 

“Obviously there have been advances in payloads, and we are going to take advantage of that,” he said. 

Satixfy CEO Yoel Gat said by email that the company will have components on a single OneWeb satellite expected to launch in 2021. 

Steckel said OneWeb is not worried that SpaceX surpassed it in satellites launched. SpaceX now has 242 satellites in orbit for Starlink, a broadband constellation that could number 12,000 or even 42,000 satellites. 

Steckel said he believes OneWeb’s business plan differs significantly enough from SpaceX that both can coexist. 

“They are focused on broadband to the home; we’re focused on connecting people all over the place and on coverage,” he said. “I think there is an opportunity for both companies to be successful.”