Space Race Heats Up: Airbus to Make Satellites for OneWeb

oneweb gloabal connectivity featured
Written by Larry Press

OneWeb production of satellites will begin as SpaceX begins initial testing. The race for global connectivity takes off.

aNewDomain — Two prominent companies, OneWeb and SpaceX, are in a competitive race for global Internet access through constellations of low-earth satellites that will orbit around the planet. SpaceX made headlines in June, announcing it was ready to start limited testing of its satellites. Meanwhile Greg Wyler, the CEO of OneWeb, gave a thorough progress report in March 2015 in addition to the announcement of a bidding contract for the building of its satellites.

After three short months, and five bids, Airbus has won the OneWeb contact. The aircraft manufacturing company will build 900, 150-kilogram satellites for OneWeb, 648 of which will be used in OneWeb’s initial launch of its near-polar orbit constellation. The animated video below shows what that launch will look like:

Video: Airbus Defence and Space Selected for OneWeb Satellites Constellation

Questions And Answers

Brian Holz, the Director Space Systems for OneWeb, has given a wonderful in-depth interview to address the huge number of questions the OneWeb/Airbus announcement raises. Holz discusses these large issues (in addition to many others):

  • Why the satellites will be produced in the U.S., and the factors that go into choosing a specific location
  • The $400,000 to $500,000 cost of each satellite
  • Why global participation is necessary for a global project, including launch services, satellite reliability and how to de-orbit them
  • Financing the project
  • How to find manufacturers for millions of antennas and user terminals

It’s worth the read.

CEO Greg Wyler and Brian Holz of OneWeb go back — they worked together at O3b Networks, a satellite company that’s already providing industrial-scale connectivity with medium-orbit satellites — and are legimimate competitors for SpaceX.

Both companies seek the same general goal: global connectivity. But OneWeb and SpaceX use different technology and organizational strategies when approaching this problem.

SpaceX plans have shown it will use roughly 4,000 satellites that are smaller, cheaper and shorter-lived than OneWeb’s, and they will be orbiting at only 645 kilometers. Likewise, the SpaceX project will be conducted much more within the company, whereas OneWeb has announced a coordinated coalition of partners to help achieve connectivity. Current OneWeb coalition members include Qualcomm, Virgin Galactic, Rockwell Collins, Honeywell Aerospace and, of course, Airbus. But Airbus won’t just be a supplier. It will be a partner in this joint venture, which will include others to help with technology, marketing and finance.

While the project operations are different, both are incredibly ambitious, expensive and risky. I’m not sure if either company will “win the race,” but I believe the best outcome for consumers would be for both companies to succeed. OneWeb and SpaceX would then compete between themselves and other terrestrial ISPs, opening up a more diverse marketplace.

Capitalism and its massive concentration of power and income inequality often poses a problem for me, but these ventures are examples of capitalism at its best.

For aNewDomain, I’m .

Featured: Southern Lights by NASA Earth via Flickr

Body image: Brian Holz screenshot courtesy of SpaceNews