Sat. Sep 24th, 2022

For the better part of a year, SpaceX has received the lion’s share of attention when it comes to mega-constellations and satellite internet. Between May and January, the company launched 240 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, with more launches on the way, and has talked about offering preliminary commercial services later this year.

But it was actually another company, OneWeb, that launched the first six satellites of its mega-constellation in February 2019. The first tests of those satellites went well, the company said last summer. Now OneWeb is preparing for the second launch of 34 satellites aboard a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. It is scheduled to launch at 4:42 p.m. ET (21:42 UTC) on Thursday, Feb. 6.

Ahead of Thursday’s launch, Ars spoke with OneWeb Chief Executive Officer Adrián Steckel about the company’s plans and how it will compete with half a dozen other companies looking to provide internet from space.

scale up

After the company’s initial launch a year ago, Steckel said OneWeb was pleased with the performance of its six satellites, each weighing about 150kg. Steckel said OneWeb has made “a lot of changes” to the software to manage the satellites, but only “minor changes” to the hardware itself, less than 5 percent of the overall design.

One of the big challenges of the past year, he said, has been scaling up. The company initially built 10 satellites and launched six. This year, OneWeb plans to do 10 launches from 30 to 36 satellites per flight, so that required major changes in manufacturing and suppliers. “But now we have the factory up and running,” he said of the company’s facility just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “We’ve really been able to approach satellites on an assembly line.”

Soyuz takes off from the spaceport in French Guiana in February 2019 with the first six satellites for OneWeb.
enlarge Soyuz takes off from the spaceport in French Guiana in February 2019 with the first six satellites for OneWeb.

Ariane space

The company chose to partner with Arianespace and its custom Soyuz launch vehicle for its 2020 launches because, Steckel said, OneWeb needed a provider that could guarantee a high cadence of launches with good success. After completing the initial phase of deployment, consisting of a network of 648 satellites, OneWeb will consider alternative launch vehicles in 2021 as it continues to expand its network. Ultimately, it can fly as many as 5,260 satellites.

“Right now we are the largest launch buyer in the world,” said Steckel. “Going forward, as we look to our next stage of implementation, we are willing to buy rocket launches from SpaceX, Blue Origin or whoever.”

A different approach

OneWeb has taken a different approach than SpaceX in how it plans to interact with customers on the ground. SpaceX has chosen to offer direct-to-consumer services with the intention of selling user terminals to acquire satellite from space and essentially functioning as a new Internet service provider. OneWeb plans to partner with existing telecommunications companies, Steckel said.

For example, Steckel said if you live on a mountaintop in Utah, you can’t go to OneWeb’s website and order service. Rather, the company plans to partner with existing service providers to expand its networks and increase capacity. So OneWeb’s service in rural areas of Utah would likely be sold through a distributor.

It’s a model the company says makes sense because the correct answer for getting regulatory approval and providing service in the United States or the Philippines or Indonesia will vary, Steckel said. “We will be doing business with partners around the world,” said Steckel. “Our style is not confrontational. We use a different model. It is a big world.”

OneWeb plans to offer its first customer demonstrations by the end of 2020 and to offer full commercial global services by 2021.

Eye on the night sky

In addition to Starlink, OneWeb has to contend with competitors in Amazon’s Project Kuiper service, Telesat, and possibly other companies such as Lynk, Facebook and others. Steckel said he believes three or four companies will reach the stage of launching hardware into space, and having three or four low-latency internet providers from low Earth orbit will likely provide a healthy market for them. consumers and providers.

Steckel has also observed the reaction of astronomers when SpaceX started sending hundreds of satellites into space. Starlink represents just the vanguard of mega-constellations, which are likely to eventually launch tens of thousands of satellites into orbit at an altitude of about 500 to 1,200 km. Because OneWeb’s satellites will be about twice as tall as Starlink satellites, at 1,200 km, Steckel said they shouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. In addition, he said, OneWeb has been in dialogue with both the Royal Astronomical Society in London and the American Astronomical Society.

“I’d love to tell you that this isn’t a problem for us, but we’re not sure,” he said. “What I can say is that we are working to minimize the impact on astronomy and the night sky.”

List image by Arianespace

By akfire1

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