UK jump-starts OneWeb-ESA program with $23 million pledge

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Multiyear investment begins with 18-month contract worth few million pounds.

WASHINGTON — The U.K. Space Agency announced Feb. 18 it is providing 18 million pounds ($23.3 million) to satellite broadband startup OneWeb through the agency’s participation in the 22-nation European Space Agency.

The U.K. is the first of six ESA member states plus Canada to put forward funding for OneWeb Sunrise — a program aimed at preparing OneWeb’s constellation of 600 to 900 satellites to stitch into upcoming fifth-generation communications networks on the ground.

OneWeb’s first six satellites are scheduled to launch Feb. 26 on an Arianespace Soyuz rocket from French Guiana, starting a launch campaign that could see up to 150 OneWeb satellites orbited by year’s end.

In an interview, Xavier Lobao, head of ESA’s future telecommunications projects division, said the agency is finalizing an 18-month Phase One contract with OneWeb worth a few million pounds for analysis and design work. A Phase Two contract will be discussed at ESA’s ministerial conference in Seville, Spain, this November, where member states will request funding to build, launch and test OneWeb Sunrise-developed technologies, Lobao said.

Lobao said the U.K. is ahead of the other OneWeb Sunrise participants — Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland — in that it has now already allocated funding for both phases of the program. Canada is a “cooperating state” with ESA that participates on programs despite not being a full member.

The U.K., amid Brexit negotiations, has emphasized the importance of its work with ESA, which is a separate body from the European Union. The U.K. Space Agency said OneWeb plans to employ up to 200 people in the country at one of the company’s business units.

OneWeb counts the British divisions of Teledyne and CGI as suppliers for the satellite constellation it is building through a joint venture with European manufacturer Airbus Defence and Space.

OneWeb Sunrise is led by ESA’s Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems, or ARTES, division. ARTES funds programs through public-private partnerships, providing up to 50 percent of funds needed. Lobao said OneWeb is funding a “substantial part” of the program, but declined to specify how much exactly.

Adrian Steckel, OneWeb’s chief executive, said in a statement released by the U.K. Space Agency that the ARTES investment will help the company fulfill its goal of connecting people worldwide.

“Thanks to this support, we will focus together on next generation technologies that will be game changers for realizing global 5G connectivity,” he said.

OneWeb did not respond to SpaceNews’ request for comment.

Lobao said the amount put forward by the U.K. represents only a fraction of the envisioned total for OneWeb Sunrise. Indications of interest from ESA member states suggest up to 12 countries may participate in Phase Two of the program, he said.

Lobao listed four topics in addition to 5G that OneWeb Sunrise will focus on: artificial intelligence for flying the satellites; new payload and user terminal technology; spectrum and signal interference management; and active debris removal.

Lobao said the payload technology focuses on the second generation of satellites, but does not have a solid demarcation between the first generation.

“The second generation is not at the end of generation one,” he said. “It is more the ‘NewSpace’ way that is continuous. When you have something that is a mature new technology and an innovation that makes sense, the next batch of satellites you are launching incorporates that. Little by little, gradually, they will be incorporating new technologies into the constellation.”

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, in a Jan. 14 interview with SpaceNews, said OneWeb will seek to iterate on the first generation of satellites, with spacecraft performance determining if 900 of them are needed.

“It’s not a question of whether there will more capacity from the system: the question is how,” he said. “It may be continue with Gen-1, or it may be step function into Gen-2.”

Wyler tweeted Jan. 23 that the Gen-2 satellites will have at least 50 times more capacity, and will likely expand the entire constellation to 1,980 satellites.

Lobao said OneWeb is being very proactive on satellite disposal and preventing space debris. ESA has identified roughly half a dozen providers of active debris removal services that could support OneWeb, he said, but specified that it will be up to OneWeb to determine the feasibility of each approach.