from the but-can-you-use-it-to-navigate? dept.
European aerospace giant Airbus and its partner, OneWeb, have begun the production of a satellite mega-constellation. The network will comprise at least 600 spacecraft in the first instance, but could eventually encompass more than 2,000. The aim is to deliver broadband links from orbit to every corner of the globe. In particular, the project wants every school to have a connection.
Building so large a constellation requires a step-change in the manufacture of satellites - especially for Airbus. It can take Europe's biggest space company many months and hundreds of millions of dollars to build some of today's specialist platforms. But for the OneWeb venture, it is all about high volume and low cost. That means new assembly line methods akin to those in factories producing cars and planes. The idea is to turn out three units per shift at well less than a million dollars a piece. The boss of Airbus, Tom Enders, concedes he initially thought the OneWeb concept to be fantasy. "Everything in space as you know traditionally has been 'gold-plated'; it had to work perfectly, [and have] the most expensive materials, etc. "Here, we've had to go other ways, to be really commercial and calculating according to the target cost because that is very decisive in the whole business case for OneWeb," he told BBC News.
[...] The establishment of the OneWeb constellation requires the greatest rocket campaign in the history of spaceflight. More than 20 Soyuz vehicles have been booked to throw clusters of 32-36 satellites into a web some 1,200km above the Earth. There should be just under 300 on station by the end of 2020, the start of 2021; more than 600 about a year or so later; and then over 800 by the middle of the decade.
OneWeb and Airbus are not the only companies planning a mega-constellation in the sky. SpaceX, Boeing, ViaSat and others have all sought regulatory approval. But not everyone will succeed in getting the necessary multi-billion-dollar financing, and Airbus believes the OneWeb concept has first-mover advantage.
Competing Communications Constellations Considered
Ars Technica On Sunday reported that Elon Musk (of SpaceX and Tesla fame) and Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic, etc.) are each preparing to launch LEO (low earth orbit) constellations of satellites to provide world-wide internet coverage:
It was an interesting week for ideas about the future of the Internet. On Wednesday, satellite industry notable Greg Wyler announced that his company OneWeb, which wants to build a micro-satellite network to bring Internet to all corners of the globe, secured investments from Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Qualcomm. Then in a separate announcement on Friday, Elon Musk said that he would also be devoting his new Seattle office to creating "advanced micro-satellites" to deliver Internet.
[...] OneWeb, formerly WorldVu Satellites Ltd, aims to target rural markets, emerging markets, and in-flight Internet services on airlines, the Wall Street Journal reported. Both Branson and Qualcomm Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs will sit on the company's board, but Wyler did not say how much Virgin and Qualcomm invested in his company.
Wyler said that his company's goal is to create a network of 648 small satellites that would weigh in at around 285 pounds each. The satellites would be put in orbit 750 miles above the Earth and ideally cost about $350,000 each to build using an assembly line approach. Wyler also said that Virgin, which has its own space segment, would be launching the satellites into orbit. “As an airline and mobile operator, Virgin might also be a candidate to resell OneWeb’s service,” the Journal noted. Wyler has said that he projects it to take $1.5 billion to $2 billion to launch the service, and he plans to launch in 2018.
[...] On the other hand there's Musk, who's a seasoned space-business launcher that's starting fresh in the world of satellite Internet services. The Telsa and SpaceX founder announced his plans to launch 700 satellites weighing less than 250 pounds each in November.
His satellites would also orbit the Earth at 750 miles above. Musk spoke to Bloomberg on Friday evening explaining that 750 miles above the Earth is much closer than the tens of thousands of miles above the Earth at which traditional telecommunications satellites operate.
Then it got even more interesting.
Ars is now reporting Google might pour money into SpaceX — that it really wants satellite internet:
The Information reported on Monday that, according to “several people familiar with the talks,” Google is considering investing in SpaceX to support its plan to deliver hundreds or thousands of micro satellites into a low (750 mile) orbit around the globe to serve Internet to rural and developing areas of the world. The Information's sources indicated that Google was in the “final stages” of investing in SpaceX and valued the company at “north of $10 billion.” SpaceX is apparently courting other investors as well.
[...] The Information added another interesting tidbit that was not widely reported in previous discussions of SpaceX's plans for global Internet service: “Mr. Musk appears to be trying to get around his lack of spectrum rights by relying, in part, on optical lasers.”
After years of relentless legal badgering from internet satellite constellation competitor OneWeb, SpaceX's regulatory and legal affairs team appears to have begun to (in a professional manner) lose patience with the constant barrage.
On February 21st, SpaceX published a withering refutation of OneWeb's latest criticism that offered a range of no-holds-barred counterarguments, painting the competitor – or at least its legal affairs department – as an entity keen on trying to undermine Starlink with FCC-directed critiques based on flawed reasoning, false assumptions, misinterpretations, and more. Alongside a number of memorable one-liners and retorts, legal counselors William Wiltshire and Paul Caritj and SpaceX executives Patricia Cooper and David Goldman openly "wonder whether OneWeb would be satisfied with SpaceX operating at any altitude whatsoever."
In late 2018, SpaceX filed a request with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that would allow the company to significantly modify parts of its Starlink satellite constellation license, cutting 16 spacecraft from the original total of 4425 and moving Phase 1's now-1584 satellites from an operating altitude of ~1100-1300 km (680-810 mi) to just 550 km (340 mi). Aside from further reducing the latency of communications, SpaceX also argues that "the principal reason" behind lowering the operational altitude of the first ~37% of Starlink satellites was "to [further] enhance the already considerable space safety attributes of [the] constellation."
[...] [There] is a great deal more irony to be found in OneWeb's attempt to block SpaceX from lowering the orbit of its first ~1600 satellites. In 2017 and 2018, the company repeatedly complained to the FCC about the fact that SpaceX's Starlink constellation was to nominally be placed in orbits from ~1100-1300 km, effectively sandwiching OneWeb's own ~1200 km constellation. OneWeb continues to demand an unreasonable level of special treatment from the FCC, hoping that the commission will allow it to establish a sort of buffer zone extending 125 km above and below its own constellation, basically demanding that a huge swath of low Earth orbit be OneWeb's and OneWeb's alone. In reality, this is likely nothing more than a thinly veiled anti-competitive tactic, in which success would almost entirely bar other prospective space-based internet providers from even considering the same orbit.
Related: Competing Communications Constellations Considered
Airbus and OneWeb Begin Building Satellites for Internet Constellation
FCC Authorizes SpaceX to Provide Broadband Satellite Services
U.S. Air Force Awards SpaceX $28.7 Million to Study Military Applications of Starlink
Blue Origin to Provide Multiple Orbital Launches for Telesat
SpaceX Seeks Approval for 1 Million Starlink Ground Stations, Faces Pentagon Audit