OneWeb or another, it’s gonna get there...
Jan 15, 2021
- Another lifeline of funding and support has been thrown to UK part-owned LEO project, OneWeb
- If it can execute its current slimmed down plan efficiently it may just about be able to hold on, despite further challenges from rival LEO consortia
- Elon Musk is already piloting his Starlink service while the EU is girding its loins for an ‘aggressive’ push into space
OneWeb, the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite system that refuses to die now looks destined to reach some sort of fruition as another pair of well-financed wannabe space players steps up to throw more money into the pot.
The last installment (see -Troubled OneWeb satellite system now fully owned by the UK government and Bharti) saw its two owners pull OneWeb out of Chapter 11 protection with plans to move on with the launch schedule, aiming to have 648 broadband satellites in orbit by 2022.
Last month it launched 36 new satellites, built at its Airbus Joint Venture assembly plant in Florida, bringing the Company’s fleet to 110 satellites.
OneWeb collapsed into bankruptcy when Japan’s Softbank could no longer back it, having got into its own difficulties, but now Softbank is back, money in hand, and ready to play again. And it’s brought Hughes Network Systems along, bringing OneWeb’s total funding to $1.4 billion, the company claims. Hughes is apparently just dipping a toe into the consortium with a minor investment of $50 million (unconfirmed) but the presence of an experienced player providing some backing at any price no doubt helps to raise the scheme’s credibility. It’s not known how much Softbank has added to the coffers. A variety of reports estimate it’s popped in another $350 million.
OneWeb touts its ‘responsibility’
On Wednesday, OneWeb announced that it was reducing the number of satellites it was planning from the original eye-watering 47,884 way down to 6,372, although what it describes as the “Fundamental constellation architecture” will remain the same.
It claims the “solidification” of OneWeb’s constellation demonstrates the commitment and vision of its new owners who don’t want to be seen as irresponsible over the space-clogging potential of its satellite numbers.
The further revival of OneWeb comes as Elon Musk’s Starlink begins its pilot service over the UK and is already being used here following a limited trial offer, Never one to do things by half, Musk and Starlink was going for big numbers - according to the BBC the plan is to deliver global broadband internet using 42,000 satellites.
Musk’s Space X has already launched more than 800 into orbit and hopes to have 12,000 up there by 2026. As “responsible” OneWeb seems to be pointing out, that could translate into a lot of space junk.
Saving some space for Europe
Meanwhile, inside the EU, Thierry Breton, the Commissioner for the Internal Market since 2019 and formerly a professor at Harvard Business School and French finance minister, has given a speech clarifying European space policy. Breton says he wants to push forward with the next generation Galileo project (the UK’s exclusion from which resulted in its move to take on OneWeb) with a first launch in 2024. But this will only be part of a robust strategy to ensure that the EU doesn’t get squeezed out by China and the US.
While the EU has had space successes with Galileo and the Ariane rocket programme, Breton thinks it's time to redouble effort and instigate a more aggressive policy to ensure ‘autonomous’ access to space for both military/security and commercial reasons.
Breton may have its work cut out unless he can get more funds and find commercial backers. Europe invested 12 billion euros in space between 2014 to 2020 but is poised to have that increased to just 15 billion euros for the next 2021-2027 six year period.
Breton says he wants to gather all the potential European space actors to initiate a ‘European Launcher alliance’ to hammer out a common roadmap for the next generation of launchers and technologies relevant to ensure an autonomous access to space.” Breton said the alliance would be made up of industry, EU governments, EU lawmakers and the European Space Agency, amongst others.
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