WASHINGTON — OneWeb has shifted the debut launch for its satellite megaconstellation to the fourth quarter of the year.
The startup’s first launch of 10 satellites aboard an Arianespace Soyuz rocket was scheduled for this month, but was pushed out toward the end of the year to allow for more testing and to incorporate improved components in the final spacecraft design.
“Our production launches will start in Q4,” Greg Wyler, OneWeb’s founder, told SpaceNews. “We decided to continue with more ground testing and then go right into production because we can test virtually everything we need on the ground.”
OneWeb is building the first 900 satellites of its constellation through a joint venture with Airbus called OneWeb Satellites. Wyler said the decision to delay was “based on which component revisions were available.”
Backed by SoftBank, Intelsat, Coca-Cola and other investors, OneWeb is creating a constellation of small telecom satellites with the goal of making the internet accessible to everyone on Earth by 2027. How many satellites exactly is still to be determined — OneWeb in March asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to expand its authorization from 720 to 1,980 Ku-band satellites. The company still expects to begin service in 2019, starting with the first few hundred spacecraft.
“As long as we begin our production launches this year we are still on schedule,” Wyler said.
Arianespace is launching the bulk of OneWeb’s first generation constellation, and has 21 Soyuz launches contracted, along with options for more with Soyuz and the next generation Ariane 6. In a January interview, Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel was noncommittal on how many OneWeb Soyuz launches the company would do this year, saying it would “launch at least once for OneWeb this year and maybe more.”
“There is a saying commonly used in engineering: ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good,’” Wyler said. “There are always margins that you could increase with more testing and design modifications. We are using this time to increase our margins and also implement some improvements. We didn’t absolutely need to do everything we are doing, but after internal discussion, we are taking advantage of the timing opportunity to iterate.”
Since OneWeb’s first launch will only have 10 satellites onboard, the rocket will travel straight to their 1,200-kilometer low Earth orbit instead of the 500-kilometer drop off planned for subsequent flights, Wyler said. The near-direct insert cuts a few months of orbit raising time that would have relied on each satellite’s internal propulsion.
Wyler estimated there might be a two month gap between the first launch and the rest of the launch campaign, which consists of a Soyuz launch every 21 days. After the first launch, each Soyuz will carry 36 satellites, with some occasionally carrying 34, he said.
OneWeb also has a contract with Virgin Orbit for 39 LauncherOne missions and a memorandum of understanding with Blue Origin for five New Glenn launches to supplement its primary Arianespace campaign. Neither of those vehicles are launching yet, however.
Wyler said OneWeb’s first generation satellites have “actually beat our plans,” on mass, weighing in at around 145 kilograms each instead of the projected 150 kilograms.
“We are at about 14.5 kilograms per Gbps. Each satellite is about the same performance as the satellites I designed for O3b, yet we are putting nine times as many on a rocket,” he said.
Prior to OneWeb, Wyler founded O3b Networks, a company since bought by Luxembourgian fleet operator SES, that provides connectivity services through a constellation of medium-Earth-orbit satellites. Wyler said each OneWeb satellite provides nine times as much throughput per kilogram as an original O3b satellite.
“Our next generation, which we are working on now, will see at least a 15X increase in performance,” he said.