OneWeb aims to broaden internet access across the world
European aerospace giant, Airbus, is going to build the world's largest satellite constellation.
The company will produce 900 spacecraft for OneWeb, a British Channel Islands-registered concern that aims to broaden internet access to the underserved.
More than 600 satellites will initially be launched, with the rest held as spares.
The deal was announced at the Paris Airshow.
The multi-billion-dollar OneWeb constellation will dwarf any previous commercial network in the sky by a factor of 10.
Airbus will be the "industrial partner" on the project. And the role represents an immense challenge, because Airbus has made its name on some of the world's highest specification and most expensive telecommunications platforms.
In contrast, its workflow for OneWeb will have to be high volume at an extremely low cost.
Step-change in thinking?
Each satellite is expected to be about 150kg is size, and OneWeb was reportedly looking for a price per unit of less than half a million dollars.
Airbus says it will make the first 10 spacecraft at its Toulouse manufacturing facility before shifting work to a dedicated plant in the United States.
Many rockets will be required to get the constellation in orbit, and that is likely to involve Richard Branson's Virgin Group. As well as sitting on OneWeb's board, Sir Richard is also developing a satellite launch system based on his tourist spaceplane concept.
Airbus would not give a formal interview at the airshow but issued a statement from its head of space systems.
“This partnership is a fantastic new chapter in our space story,” said François Auque.
“Teaming with OneWeb with a requirement to produce several small satellites each day has inspired us to develop innovative designs and processes that will dramatically lower the cost in large volumes for high performance space applications.
“Without doubt, this programme is challenging but we’re ready for it because we have leveraged resources and expertise across the entire Airbus Group.”
OneWeb is led by Greg Wyler, and the American entrepreneur was pictured meeting French President François Hollande at the Le Bourget showground.
Mr Wyler started the O3B satellite network a few years ago. This is a 12-spacecraft constellation providing “backhaul” telecommunications services, also in broadband-underserved countries.
But Mr Wyler’s OneWeb venture is a step-change in thinking.
The plan envisages 20 planes of low-orbiting satellites connecting to small user terminals on the ground. These terminals would act as hubs, linking phones and computers.
Satellite constellations, it has to be said, have a rather chequered history.
Even some of today’s big players, like satphone service providers Iridium and GlobalStar, got themselves into enormous financial trouble when building their first-generation networks.
OneWeb will have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to maintain a venture that will not be fully operational for some years.
Money was not mentioned in Monday's Airbus announcement. The description of the company as an "industrial partner" suggests it will be investing some of its own cash in the project. It did say that no launches were envisaged before 2018.
OneWeb satellite operator eyes huge rocket campaign
The biggest commercial rocket campaign in history has been announced by OneWeb.
The British Channel Islands-registered company has acquired more than 60 launchers to help put up its proposed satellite broadband network.
OneWeb envisages placing 648 spacecraft in orbit to take affordable internet connectivity to every part of the globe.
The firm used a London press conference to detail its plans.
This included introducing all of the key partners in the endeavour.
Along with European aerospace giant Airbus, which was announced last week as the satellite manufacturer, OneWeb presented Bharti Enterprises, Coca Cola, Group Salinas, Hughes Network Systems, and Intelsat.
Chip-designer Qualcomm and the Virgin Group already had seats on the board.
"We have put together an incredible team and we have an ability to execute on our model," said OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler. "We have funding, we have spectrum, chip technology, satellite manufacturing, launchers, and then markets - the broad pieces of the puzzle to build a system of this size."
Virgin's Sir Richard Branson said that he would be making available at least 39 of his LauncherOne rockets to assist with the deployment of the satellite constellation.
This vehicle, which is based on Virgin Galactic's space tourism system, has not actually had its debut flight yet, and when it does enter service will probably only launch between one and three satellites at a time. That makes the involvement of the long-established Arianespace all the more important. It is the commercial operator of the Soyuz launcher.
OneWeb says it has a firm acquisition order for 21 of these Russian-made rockets. The vehicles would orbit the satellites in large batches of about 36. At some point, Arianespace may even make available its Ariane rocket. In publicity material released on Thursday, an artist's impression depicted the forthcoming Ariane 6 rocket painted in the OneWeb livery.
"The special characteristic we'll bring is in the replenishment role," said Virgin Galactic's CEO, George Whitesides. "And if there is a problem with a particular satellite, we can help fix that. I think it's a very smart strategy, and what I think people should get is that it is a very complementary strategy between the different launch vehicles."
It is difficult to overstate the challenge of the OneWeb proposition.
Its constellation would be 10 times the size of the largest commercial satcom network currently in the sky.
To make the project financially manageable, it will need not only some sizeable loans but also considerable direct investment from its partners, and part of Thursday's event was to announce that OneWeb had raised $500m of funding from those supporting companies.
One aspect of key interest is the price of each individual 150-kilo satellite. The aim is to get the unit cost to half a million dollars or less - something unheard of in the industry.
"Yes, the cost per satellite will be about half a million, which is really tremendous for company that normally makes satellites for a hundred million and upwards," said Airbus CEO Tom Enders. "We do it by being ingenious and creative."
OneWeb expects to place the spacecraft in 20 orbital planes at an altitude of about 1,200km. They would connect to small user terminals on the ground.
These terminals would then act as hubs, linking phones and computers. The low altitude of the constellation should mitigate the delay, or latency, that users experience as they send and receive data over the system.
Mr Wyler has history in this business. He started the O3B satellite network, which is doing something very similar, but with just 12 mid-orbiting spacecraft.
The "O3B" is a reference to "Other Three Billion" - an estimate of the numbers of people around the world who have little or no broadband access.
The rollout of the new constellation is not expected to begin until 2017 at the earliest.
Because OneWeb is British-based, the UK, as the "launching state", carries certain liabilities, and that means the UK Space Agency is going to be very busy in a licensing capacity, ensuring the project's activities meet the highest standards. One of these is an insistence that old satellites are disposed of in accordance with international space debris guidelines.
"The project demonstrates the importance of satellites in space to the communications infrastructure, and it's fantastic that there is great UK interest and potentially UK involvement," UKSA CEO Dr David Parker told BBC News.
"There are enormous technical challenges for this project, but they've obviously got an interesting team to try and solve them."
Mr Wyler said he would be announcing significant investments in Britain connected with the project in due course.