Airbus and OneWeb officially opened the world’s “first” high-volume satellite production factory in Florida this week, followed by a quick announcement that SoftBank Corporation would be supporting OneWeb in spinning up commercial arrangements.
“OneWeb Satellites and its partners are transforming the satellite and space industry. By producing high quality satellites at a fraction of the cost and schedule of traditional manufacturers, we are not only enabling OneWeb to connect the planet, we are making space dramatically more accessible to everyone,” said Tony Gingiss, CEO of One Web Satellites.
The OneWeb Satellites facility, a joint venture of Airbus and OneWeb, is a purpose-built factory in an economic development park outside of NASA Kennedy Space Center. It employs “industry-scale mass production techniques for satellites,” according to a press release, enabling dramatically reduced costs and production times to delivery one satellite per production shift, roughly two satellites per day. The factory will create 250 new high-tech jobs for Florida.
Until recently, nearly all satellites were custom-built, costing upwards of tens of millions of dollars or more for a single spacecraft, and taking more than a year to build just one. The OneWeb Satellites factor will first support the rapid scaling of the OneWeb network, starting with a first-generation constellation of 650 satellites for global connectivity, scaling upward to 1,980 satellites with more overall network bandwidth capacity.
With OneWeb planning to launch over 30 satellites per mission on a single vehicle and launching every month starting this fall, the factory will be kept busy cranking out satellites. Connectivity is expected to be enabled in some areas as early as next year and global coverage is expected to be achieved in 2021.
Each OneWeb first-generation communications satellite will weigh in at 150 kilograms, with a payload mass of 60 kilograms and is expected to have a design life of five to seven years, depending on its orbital altitude.
OneWeb Satellites won’t be just for OneWeb proper. Airbus has had discussions with potential U.S. government customers, as the Department of Defense looks to shift from expensive, large satellites to smaller satellites with functions distributed across a constellation, reducing any single point of failure (attack) and increasing survivability.
Commercial customers may also take advantage of the OneWeb Satellites facility, but so far no companies have stepped up to express interest. New Space-style companies to date have either farmed out hardware builds to similar-sized companies or built/brought production capabilities in-house to control schedule and cost. Imaging companies such as Black Sky and Planet produce their own satellites, as does satellite/airplane tracker Spire Global.
SoftBank Corporation’s announcement with OneWeb to “advance OneWeb commercial services” is the less heralded, but potentially more significant announcement this week, even though the arrangements weren’t detailed. “With its extensive track record as a telecommunications operator, SoftBank has built up technological capabilities, insights and know-how in satellite solutions from a user perspective,” a July 24 press release stated. “Leveraging SoftBank’s expertise, OneWeb and SoftBank will work together to execute the deployment plan and support end-user product development and build commercial partnerships.”
One possible scenario would use OneWeb broadband as a fiber-less way to extend rural mobile coverage and support 5G deployments in underserved and unserved areas worldwide. Helping OneWeb define and bring services more quickly to market would greatly benefit the company, enabling it to approach and sign up customers more quickly than other competitors, such as SpaceX Starlink and Telesat.