OneWeb satellite constellation

Summary

OneWeb satellite constellation
KSC-20170316-PH KLS01 0007~orig.jpg
Model of a OneWeb satellite
ManufacturerOneWeb Satellites
(OneWeb and Airbus)
Country of originUnited Kingdom
OperatorOneWeb
ApplicationsInternet service
Website
  • onewebsatellites.com
  • oneweb.world
Specifications
Spacecraft typeSmall satellite
Launch mass150 kg[1]
EquipmentKu-band antennas
RegimePolar low Earth orbit
(1,200 km (750 mi))
Production
StatusActive
Launched74
Maiden launch27 February 2019
Last launch21 March 2020
OneWeb logo

The OneWeb satellite constellation (formerly WorldVu) was a planned initial 650-satellite constellation that was in the process of being completed in 2019–2020, with a goal to provide global satellite Internet broadband services to people everywhere, initially aiming to start global services in 2021. The constellation was being deployed by OneWeb, formerly known as WorldVu Satellites and headquartered in London, with offices in California, Florida, Virginia, Dubai and Singapore.

In late March 2020, OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and laid off most of their employees, but maintained the satellite operations center for the 68 satellites already in orbit while the court determined the disposition of OneWeb's assets.

Seventy-four satellites were launched before the bankruptcy. The first six test satellites were launched in February 2019;[2] the first large batch of 34 satellites was launched in February 2020,[3] and another 34 were put into orbit in March 2020.[4] The small satellites were built by OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb.[5] The satellites are in a circular low Earth orbit, at approximately 1,200 km (750 mi) altitude,[6] transmitting and receiving in the Ku-band of the radio frequency spectrum.[7] Prior to the bankruptcy, OneWeb had been considering nearly quadrupling the size of the satellite constellation over time by adding 1,972 satellites that it has priority spectrum rights to.[8]

In late May 2020, OneWeb filed an application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase the number of satellites to 48,000 despite the bankruptcy process.[9]

In November 2020, OneWeb exited bankruptcy thanks to investment of over US$1 billion lead by UK government and Bharti Global.[10]

History

Early reports of the potential involvement of Google in offering broadband internet services surfaced in February 2014, when a "very large [satellite] constellation" was rumored to be as large as 1,600 satellites.[11] In May 2014, the early concept had been to have at least 20 satellites operating in each of 20 different orbital planes to provide consistent internet coverage over the surface of the Earth.[7] By June 2014, WorldVu (which would later be renamed to OneWeb) had acquired the satellite spectrum that was formerly owned by SkyBridge, a company that went bankrupt in 2000,[12] in a much earlier attempt to offer broadband Internet services via satellite.[13]

By September 2014, the WorldVu company had 30 employees, and several Google employees who had joined Google as part of the acquisition of O3b Networks in 2013 — Greg Wyler, Brian Holz and David Bettinger — left Google to become a part of WorldVu Satellites Ltd. The rights to the radio frequency spectrum were transferred to WorldVu. It was unclear why the WorldVu team left Google, as well as what Google's role might be in WorldVu going forward. At the time, WorldVu was working closely with SpaceX and SpaceX' founder Elon Musk to explore satellite internet services,[14] although no formal relationship had been established and no launch commitments had been made in 2014.[15]

By November 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that Musk and Wyler were considering options for building a factory to manufacture high-volume low-cost satellites, and that "initial talks have been held with state officials in Florida and Colorado"[16] about potentially locating a factory in those states, as well as that SpaceX would likely launch the satellites.[16] Also in November 2014, WorldVu issued a tender "to satellite manufacturers for 640 125-kg satellites", asking for responses by mid-December 2014, having secured regulatory approval for use of the requisite electromagnetic spectrum communication frequencies in mid-2014.[17][18]

The 2014 OneWeb solicitation to satellite manufacturers was for a total build of approximately 900 small Internet-delivery satellites, including ground and on-orbit spares. Responses were received from both European and American manufacturers including Airbus Defence and Space, Lockheed Martin Space Systems, OHB SE, SSL and Thales Alenia Space, and discussions focused on how each of these companies might "escape their status-quo histories as major space hardware contractors and remake themselves into producers capable of producing multiple satellites per month, each with a cost of fewer than US$500,000".[19] OneWeb announced that it planned to form a joint venture with the winning bidder and open a new facility for manufacturing the new smallsats.[19]

In January 2015, the Wall Street Journal reported that WorldVu, now operating under the name OneWeb Ltd, had secured funding from Virgin Group and Qualcomm to build and launch the constellation, while SpaceX was not an investor and their role in the venture was not clear. OneWeb also divulged that the planned satellites would weigh approximately 125 kg and that the plans were to deploy approximately 650 of them in low Earth orbit to operate at 1,200 km (750 mi) altitude.[20][21] Just a few days later, Elon Musk announced the rival Starlink venture, with the opening of the SpaceX satellite development facility in Seattle, Washington, with the intent of taking SpaceX itself into the business of internet provision and internet backhaul services, initially announced as aiming to build an approximately 4000 satellite constellation, with the first generation becoming operational in approximately 2020.[22]

The satellites for the OneWeb constellation were initially announced to be in the 110 kilograms (240 lb)-class, about the same size as the two Earth-imaging satellites that were then operated by Skybox Imaging, which Google acquired in August 2014.[21][23][24] However, by the following year, sources put the satellites nearer 175–200 kg (386–441 lb) in mass.[19][25]

In March 2015, OneWeb indicated that they intended to select a launch service provider by mid-2015[19] and in June 2015 announced that Arianespace was contracted to provide 21 multi-satellite launches on Soyuz beginning in 2017 with Virgin Galactic under contract to provide 39 single-satellite launches using its LauncherOne smallsat launch vehicle.[26][27]

By 2015, there was also an option to use Ariane 6 for up to three launches after 2021, making this the first potential contract announced for the Ariane launch vehicle.[25][28][29]

By June 2015, the company had modified their plan somewhat to orbit a somewhat larger constellation of 720 satellites, operating in low Earth orbit at 1,200 km (750 mi) altitude,[25] which plan was somewhat reduced by early 2016 back to just 640 satellites planned, but still at 1200 km.[6] In June 2015, Airbus Defence and Space was selected to build the satellites,[30][31] and development was remained on schedule one year later with the first ten satellites still headed for a 2017 launch on a "Europeanized Soyuz launch vehicle".[32] That same month, Hughes Communications made an equity investment in OneWeb, and agreed to produce the ground network system for OneWeb.[33][34][35]

In December 2016, SoftBank Group Corp agreed to invest US$1 billion in OneWeb, thus becoming OneWeb's largest shareholder, with a roughly 40% stake. Another US$200 million was funded at that time by its current investors, which include Qualcomm Inc., Airbus Group and Virgin Group. The transaction was expected to close in the first quarter of 2017.[36][8]

In February 2017, OneWeb announced that it had sold most of the communication capacity of its initial 648 satellites, and was considering nearly quadrupling the size of the satellite constellation by adding 1,972 additional satellites that it has priority spectrum license rights for.[8] With the original capital raise of US$500 million in 2015, plus the US$1 billion investment of SoftBank in 2016, previous "investors committed to an additional US$200 million, bringing OneWeb's total capital raised to US$1.7 billion".[8]

In March 2017, OneWeb filed with the US regulatory authorities (FCC) plans to field a constellation of an additional 2,000 "V-band satellites in non-geosynchronous orbits to provide communications services" in an electromagnetic spectrum that had not previously been "heavily employed for commercial communications services". This would include "720 LEO V-band satellites at 1200 kilometers, and another constellation in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) of 1,280 satellites".[37] Some controversy arose in 2015-2017 with regulatory authorities on licensing the communications spectrum for these large constellations of satellites. The traditional and historical regulatory rule for satellites licensing of communications spectrum has been that satellite operators could "launch a single spacecraft to meet their in-service deadline [from the regulator], a policy subsequently seen as allowing an operator to block the use of valuable radio spectrum for years without deploying its fleet".[38]

The US regulatory authority has set a six-year deadline to have an entire large constellation deployed to comply with licensing terms. The international regulator, the ITU, has proposed by mid-2017 an international guideline that would be considerably less restrictive. As of September 2017, both Boeing and SpaceX have petitioned the United States FCC for a waiver of the 6-year rule, while OneWeb has received FCC approval under the existing regime.[38]

In August 2018, it was announced that the first test satellite launch might move into 2019, and would be no earlier than mid-December 2018,[39] and by December 2018, was planned to be no earlier than March 2019.[40] The satellite system is planned to be fully online by 2027.[41] After OneWeb had built the initial satellites and done ground testing where they found the as-built sats "demonstrated better than expected performance", OneWeb announced in December 2018 that the company will need only 600 satellites rather than the 900 previously planned for the initial constellation.[40]

In February and March 2020, OneWeb completed two successful launches of 34 satellites into orbit on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, Kazakhstan.[3][4]

The entire network was ultimately meant to consist of 648 satellites,[42] but by mid-March 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic and market turmoil, OneWeb found themselves in a cash crunch. OneWeb and all its affiliates filed for bankruptcy on 27 March 2020, after experiencing difficulties raising capital to complete the building and deployment of the remaining 90% of the network.[43] By June 2020, one possibility being looked at for use of the OneWeb satellite constellation was as a British satellite navigation system owned and operated by the UK government, since the United Kingdom left the development group for the European Galileo system in 2018 as part of its departure from the European Union.[44]

The effect on the previously planned ten launches in 2020 was not publicly discussed,[45] but the company is maintaining its satellite operational capabilities while the company is restructured by the court. New owners for the constellation were sought.[46]

On 3 July 2020, a consortium led by the UK government and Bharti Global won the auction to purchase the bankrupt company, with each of the two parties expected to invest US$500 million for a combined investment of US$1 billion.[47][48][49][50]

Launches

A visual example of the much-smaller 24-satellite Global Positioning System constellation in motion with the Earth rotating. The number of satellites in view from a given point on the Earth's surface, in this example at 40.0° N, changes as the Earth rotates and the satellites move in their orbits.

On 27 February 2019, OneWeb successfully launched the first 6 of the 648 planned satellites (600 active plus 48 on-orbit spares) into low Earth orbit from the Centre Spatial Guyanais using a Russian Soyuz ST-B rocket.[2][51]

Also on that date at the Mobile World Congress (MWC2019), OneWeb announced that it signed its first two client agreements with Telia Company for their Quika low latency broadband service to Africa and the Middle East and Intermatica for service to Europe, marking the beginning of its commercialization.[52] Additional launches are expected for early 2020.[53]

List of launches

In November 2019, OneWeb planned monthly launches to begin in January 2020,[54] although the first of these launches was delayed to early February 2020.[3]

Flight No. Date/Time (UTC) Launch site Launch vehicle Number deployed Outcome
1 27 February 2019 Kourou, ELS Soyuz ST-B / Fregat-M 6 (test satellites) Success
2 6 February 2020 [3] Baikonur Cosmodrome, Site 31 Soyuz-2.1b / Fregat-M 34 (operational satellites) Success
3 21 March 2020 [4] Baikonur Cosmodrome, Site 31 Soyuz-2.1b / Fregat-M 34 Success
4 17 December 2020 [55] Vostochny Cosmodrome Soyuz ST-B / Fregat-M 36 Planned

Design characteristics

The satellites in the OneWeb constellation are approximately 150 kg (330 lb) in mass,[1] a bit smaller than the 2015 design estimate of 175–200 kg (386–441 lb).[19][25] The 648 operational satellites are to operate in 18 polar orbit planes at 1,200 km (750 mi) altitude.[25][56]

The satellites will operate in the Ku-band, communicating in the microwave range of frequencies in the 12–18 GHz portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.[7][21] The satellites use a technique called "progressive pitch" in which the satellites are slightly turned to avoid interference with Ku-band satellites in geostationary orbit. The user terminal antenna on the ground will be a phased array antenna measuring approximately 36 by 16 cm (14.2 by 6.3 in) and will provide Internet access at 50 megabits/second downlink bandwidth[21] (almost certainly less uplink, but this number remains hard to pin down).[citation needed] The satellites will be designed to comply with "orbital debris-mitigation guidelines for removing satellites from orbit and, for low-orbit satellites, assuring that they reenter the Earth's atmosphere within 25 years of retirement".[31]

Manufacturing and constellation rollout

OneWeb satellite manufacturing facility in Merritt Island, Florida

The constellation was originally announced in June 2014 to be just half of the total of approximately 720 satellites. A quarter of the satellites were to make up the initial constellation, and these would operate in the lower of the two proposed orbits, at approximately 850 km (530 mi).[13] The initial constellation would presumably be raised or lowered into its final orbital altitude of either 800 km (500 mi) or 950 km (590 mi) as consumer and business use of the broadband service grows over time.[7] By early 2015, OneWeb indicated that the first launches would occur no earlier than 2017.[21]

In February 2016, OneWeb announced that they would set up an assembly and test facility in Florida with plans to assemble and launch the majority of the satellites by the end of 2019, while manufacturing an additional 250 of the 140 kg-satellites as spares to be used in later years.[6]

By the time the actual orbital deployment of the constellation began, in February 2019, the planned constellation size had settled once again at 648, near the original projection, with 600 active satellites with 48 on-orbit spares.[1]

In January 2020, OneWeb reached a production rate of two satellites per day. In February 2020, the company launched its first large batch of satellites.[57][58]

Concerns

End-of-life concerns

With such a large number of satellites being added to the already crowded low Earth orbit, plans for handling the satellites once the operational life of each satellite is completed are an important consideration. The region between 600 and 1,000 km (370 and 620 mi) is already the most congested orbital regime around Earth, and concerns about adding to the existing space debris problem have been expressed.[13]

There could be a new regime of graveyard orbits added, similar to those in use for decades to handle post-operational commsats that operated in the geostationary belt; however, at the orbital altitudes envisioned for OneWeb, the disposal orbit may not have a sufficiently long life to assure long-term stability.[59] An alternative that has been proposed for years is to introduce the capability to retrieve derelict objects for near-space clean up and then either deorbit the satellite or carry out some sort of in-space recycling of its materials. Several technical approaches have been proposed, but there has been no legal framework to date that has required satellite operators to clean up the negative externality of their derelict satellites. New approaches offer the technical prospect of markedly reducing the cost of object capture and deorbit with the implementation of a one-up/one-down launch license regime to Earth orbits, that would require satellite operators to remove one spacecraft for each one deployed.[60]

By October 2017, OneWeb had filed documents with the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stating their space debris mitigation plan. OneWeb "satellites are designed for mission lives of at least five years", and "the post-mission disposal operation is anticipated to take less than one year". OneWeb also said it has designed its satellite network to avoid collisions with space stations and debris, and that OneWeb "will actively and regularly screen for conjunctions between its own satellites and other objects in the Joint Space Operations Center's (JSpOC) published catalog".[59]

Interference with other Earth-bound transceivers

OneWeb competitor, satellite fleet operator ABS, has expressed concerns about the amount of electromagnetic interference that the OneWeb constellation could add to existing terrestrial transceivers.[61]

Russian security concerns

Vladimir Sadovnikov of the Federal Security Service (FSB) stated that the FSB was opposed to OneWeb covering Russia, saying that OneWeb could be used for espionage purposes.[62] OneWeb's request for a frequency band was previously rejected by the Ministry for Digital Development and Communications, purportedly due to outstanding legal issues.[62] FSB also proposed increasing scrutiny on other satellite Internet equipment in Russia.[63]

Competition

Competition to OneWeb for producing smaller and lower-cost satellites, in general, is thought to come "from other makers of small satellites, such as Nevada-based Sierra Nevada Corp. and Britain's Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.".[16] In broadband internet service provision more specifically, there are a large number of alternatives to the proposed WorldVu satellite broadband service, mostly involving wired and terrestrial radio broadband service.

Other potential competitors in the satellite internet space are SpaceX's proposed 12,000-satellite Starlink and a 2015 proposal from Samsung outlining a 4,600-satellite constellation orbiting at 550 km (340 mi) that could bring 200 gigabytes per month of internet data to "5 billion users worldwide".[64][65] Amazon announced a large broadband internet satellite constellation in April 2019, planning to launch 3,236 satellites in the next decade in what Amazon calls "Project Kuiper", a satellite constellation that will work in concert[66] with Amazon's previously-announced large network of 12 satellite ground station facilities (the "AWS Ground Station unit") announced in November 2018.[67]

Historically, earlier companies that have attempted to build satellite internet service networks and provide space-based internet connections have not fared well, as both services were hobbled by high costs which consequently attracted few users. Iridium SSC filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999, Globalstar did the same in 2002, and Teledesic officially suspended its satellite construction work on 1 October 2002.[16]

See also

  • Iridium satellite constellation — an operational constellation of 66 active satellites used to provide global satellite phone service
  • Orbcomm — an operational constellation used to provide global asset monitoring and messaging services from its constellation of 29 LEO communications satellites orbiting at 775 km
  • Starlink — a satellite constellation development project underway by SpaceX to deploy nearly 12,000 satellites in three orbital shells by the mid-2020s
  • Teledesic — a former (1990s) venture to accomplish broadband satellite internet services
  • Viasat, Inc. — a current broadband satellite provider providing fixed, ground mobile, and airborne antennas
  • Kymeta — small form factor satellite antennas for mobile terrestrial applications
  • Hughes Network Systems – a subsidiary of EchoStar
  • United Kingdom Global Navigation Satellite System

Literature

  • Derek Webber. No Bucks, No Buck Rogers: The Business of Commercial Space — Universal-Publishers, 2017 — p. 248 — 296 p. — ISBN 9781627340915
  • Alessandra Vernile. The Rise of Private Actors in the Space Sector — Springer, 2018 — p. 37 — 121 p. — ISBN 9783319738024
  • John Bloom. Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story — Grove/Atlantic Inc., 2016 — 577 p. — ISBN 9780802192820

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External links

  • OneWeb Satellites Official Website
  • OneWeb Official Website
  • The New Space Race: One Man's Mission to Build a Galactic Internet, Bloomberg Businessweek, 22 January 2015
  • In Conversation with OneWeb Founder Greg Wyler, SpaceNews, 20 November 2015.
  • Internet for Everyone, Everywhere, CNN, 30 October 2015