What Airbus learned from building satellites with OneWeb

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This article originally appeared in the March 11, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Regardless of whether the Airbus-OneWeb joint venture gearing up to crank out dozens of satellites a month ultimately builds just 648 satellites or closer to the 900 originally envisioned, OneWeb’s constellation is the first such project large enough to truly incorporate aviation-style mass production procedures for spacecraft.

“People had thought about it … but never had an opportunity to do it because they never had big series of production,” said Nicolas Chamussy, Airbus Defence and Space’s executive vice president of space systems. “Yes, there were 10, 20, or 40 satellites, but not 900.”

Chamussy said Airbus, in forming the OneWeb Satellites joint venture getting ready to open an $85 million factory on Florida’s Space Coast, assembled a roster of aviation, automobile and munitions suppliers already well known to the larger Airbus Group.

“Airbus is delivering three aircraft a day, so it means that [our suppliers] are used to deliver[ing],” he said.

Chamussy said building the OneWeb satellites required a complete rethink of how to design a satellite with an emphasis on repeatability.

“It has to be repeatable and repeatable in a manner that does not open any opportunity for mistake,” he said.

One notable change between previous satellites and those Airbus is building with OneWeb is the use of a single onboard computer instead of three. Airbus designed the new single computer and outsourced it to a supplier that could build the finished product at scale, Chamussy said.

Despite the complexity of the OneWeb satellites, Chamussy said the most difficult part remained the same as for any other satellite: the software.

“As always the challenging part was not something that you develop, it’s the onboard software,” he said. “The onboard software is touching each and every equipment and function, and it’s the last piece of development.”

Because of that complexity, Chamussy said Airbus chose to keep the software as its direct responsibility.