Global internet provider wannabe OneWeb has announced a deal with Airbus Defence and Space to build 900 small satellites aimed at providing more 10 terabits per second of new communications capacity to the whole world.
OneWeb was set up by former Googler Greg Wyler to bring satellite internet to the globe, and the venture has the support of such backers as Virgin and Qualcomm. The company wants to loft 600 small satellites into low Earth orbit as part of the deal with Airbus, each weighing less than 150kg, with another 300 satellites in reserve to replace older hardware.
"This presents a unique opportunity to redefine satellite production," said François Auque, head of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space.
"Airbus Defence and Space ... has one of the strongest technology teams in the industry for satellite development. We have been working side-by-side with OneWeb analyzing and supporting its system, components and manufacturability and are excited to be a partner in such an important mission."
The OneWeb idea is to have a network of these satellites between 500 and 600 miles up that would be able to stream internet packets to specially made receivers on Earth. This connection could then be shared by terrestrial users.
"We have worked with Airbus Space and Defence to streamline the manufacturing process to the point that several satellites can be produced each day," said Brian Holz, head of space systems at OneWeb.
"This will redefine the cost structure for satellites, enabling rapid iteration and development of space related technologies. Our mission keeps us, Airbus, and all of our other stakeholders and excited supply chain partners focused to drive real progress."
The companies said the first batch of ten satellites would be built at facilities in Toulouse, after which production will be moved to a dedicated factory in the US.
OK, so the OneWeb plans sounds great. There's no need to fiber up the deserts and jungles, we can just pull our internet from the satellites and conjoin in one, big, happy, global family.
But then reality kicks in. Even supposing the cost of these satellites can be reduced by better manufacturing techniques and a simplified design, there's still the fact that they have to be put into orbit.
OneWeb wants to use an as-yet-unbuilt spaceship supplied by Virgin to deliver the satellites into orbit. The only problem is that Virgin's only sub-orbital vehicle crashed and burned in the Mojave Desert last year and its mooted replacement sounds like it won't have the capability to deliver a single satellite into orbit, let alone bunches of them.
The Russians might be able to launch these 600+ satellites, but that's going to be expensive and the Russian space agency has reliability problems of its own. Arianespace, in which Airbus has a stake, could also be used, but the European rocketeers have a limited number of launch slots available.
The other alternative is SpaceX, and Elon Musk's outfit was initially floated as a partner in the OneWeb project. But now Elon's Musketeers have their own plans for a satellite internet service and Google has thrown a billion dollars, and a lot of engineering talent, at that project.
Is there enough demand for two competing satellite internet providers? Almost certainly, but there may not be enough investment money to do both. Each is a multi-billion dollar project, and costs are going up every day. ®