Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Satellite Internet update -- Airbus will make satellites for OneWeb

OneWeb and SpaceX are using different technologies and have different organizational strategies.

Two companies, OneWeb and SpaceX, are in competition to offer global Internet access and backhaul over constellations of low-earth orbit satellites. (A third company, Leosat, plans to focus on high-end business and government organizations).

Unlike SpaceX, OneWeb is working with a team of investors and partners. Five companies bid for the contract to build OneWeb's satellites and Airbus won. They will build 900 150-kilogram satellites, 648 of which will be used in OneWeb's initial, near-polar orbit constellation, as shown in this animated video:

The Airbus announcement raises a lot of questions, that are addressed in a terrific in-depth interview of
Brian Holz, OneWeb’s Director of Space Systems
. Holz talks about the reasons for producing the satellites in the US and the factors in choosing a factory location, the cost of the satellites ($4-500,000 each), the need to have global participation in a global project, launch services, satellite reliability and plans for eventually deorbiting them, financing and the business case, the search for manufacturers of millions of user terminals and antennas, etc.

Brian Holz, OneWeb’s Director of Space Systems

Holz and CEO Greg Wyler have experience -- they were together at O3b Networks, which is already delivering industrial-scale connectivity using medium-orbit satellites -- and are worthy competitors for Elon Musk's SpaceX effort. While seeking the same goal -- global connectivity -- OneWeb and SpaceX are using different technologies and have different organizational strategies.

SpaceX plans to have around 4,000 smaller, cheaper, shorter-lived satellites orbiting at only 645 kilometers. SpaceX will also keep more of the project in-house than OneWeb. OneWeb is becoming a coordinated coalition of partners. Virgin Galactic, Qualcomm, Honeywell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins are already on board and Airbus will not be a mere supplier, but a partner in a joint venture, which will include others for finance and marketing as well as technology.

Both projects are extremely ambitious, expensive and risky. I don't know which, if either, will "win," but the best possible outcome would be for both to succeed and compete with each other and with terrestrial ISPs.

I worry about the problems of capitalism with its massive concentration of power and income inequality, but this is an example of capitalism at its best.

Update 6/25/2015

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler announced that they have received $500 million in funding from a group that includes Airbus and is seeking to raise that much or more in their next round of funding. Previously announced partners Qualcomm (communication technology) and Virgin Glactic (launch services) are also investors.

Their plan will require an estimated $2-2.5 billion, and it does not seem they will have trouble raising it. I'd like a few shares myself :-).

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler

Update 4/19/2016

SpaceX has (rightfully) been in the news lately because they succeeded in recovering a booster rocket by landing it on a barge at sea. If they can do that consistently, it will dramatically lower the cost of their plan to offer Internet service using a constellation of low-earth orbit satellites.

But, let's not forget OneWeb -- they are also making steady progress toward their own constellation of Internet service satellites. OneWeb just announced that they (in a joint venture with Airbus) will build a factory to mass produce small satellites near NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (SpaceX is also designing satellites suitable for mass production).

One Web plans to place Internet satellites in 18 orbital planes at an altitude of 1,100 kilometers. They plan to build about 900 of these 150-kilogram satellites -- 720 for use and the rest spares -- at a cost of $500,000 each. (See the animation above).

They will also build satellites for other customers at the new plant and they hope to be able to launch up to 36 satellites on a single flight.

Update 12/19/2016

The Japanese conglomerate Softbank is investing $1 billion in OneWeb, giving them a 40% share of the company. They are joining Richard Branson, Qualcomm, Airbus and others as OneWeb participants.

OneWeb and Elon Musk's SpaceX are both planning to launch constellations of Internet service satellites, but OneWeb is doing so in conjunction with technical and financial partners, while SpaceX is building their own satellite and launch technology.

I hope they both succeed, giving us an oligopoly rather than a monopoly. Regardless, a global Internet Service Provider presents difficult regulatory questions.

Click here for more on OneWeb and Internet service satellites.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

SpaceX is ready to test Internet service satellites.

We have been following the plans of Elon Musk and Greg Wyler to launch constellations of low-earth orbit satellites to provide global Internet service and fast long-distance links. Neither company plans to be in operation for several years, but Musk's SpaceX is ready to test two satellites.

SpaceX has filed an application to launch two test satellites and satellite experts have been discussing it on Reddit.

The application calls for launching two identical Ku-band downlink satellites (cubesats?), which will orbit at 625 kilometers and have an expected lifetime of 6-12 months. The objective of the launch is:

To validate the design of a broadband antenna communications platform (primary payload) that will lead to the final LEO constellation design using three broadband array test ground stations positioned along the western coast of the US.
They will do broadband array testing using a network of three broadband test ground locations at SpaceX Headquarters in Hawthorne, California, Tesla Motors Headquarters in Fremont, California and SpaceX Washington in Redmond, Washington. (It pays to own multiple companies). Two types of the ground terminal will be evaluated at each location.

These test results will lead to a revised, perhaps final version of the satellites and ground stations. I've no idea how soon they might be ready for operation, but SpaceX is first out of the gate in the satellite constellation Internet service race.

Update 10/17/2017

SpaceX has applied for FCC approval to test satellite communication using radios on two buildings in Redmond Washington. The ground station equipment will be mounted on the SpaceX satellite research and development building shown here and the communications equipment that will eventually be in test satellites will be on top of a tall building about 6 km away. You can read more on the application and test on Reddit.

SpaceX satellite research and development building

Update 12/14/2018

MicroSat 1a and 1b, identical test satellites for SpaceX's Starlink constellation will launch Feb 17 at 6:17 Pacific time.