The not yet fully developed Virgin Galactic’s rocket LauncherOne has snatched the world’s most ambitious satellite launch deal after the company’s CEO Sir Richard Branson stepped in as the principal investor of the planned world’s largest satellite network.
The OneWeb satellite constellation, proposed by O3b Networks founder Greg Wyler, would consist of nearly 650 low-weight, low Earth orbit satellites providing high-speed Internet connectivity directly to users in remote areas.
“We are excited by OneWeb’s bold vision to launch this major satellite constellation and will be one of its key early investors,” said Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. “Imagine the possibilities for the three billion people in hard to reach areas who are currently not connected.”
Sir Richard, together with Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of Qualcomm, who has been named as the other major investor, will join OneWeb’s board of directors.
The exact value of Branson’s investment has not been revealed but it’s believed OneWeb is still looking for additional investors to fund construction, launch and operation of the system.
As part of the deal, Virgin has taken on what may become the world’s most ambitious satellite launch job. The company’s not yet fully developed LauncherOne has been announced as the number one launch vehicle for the constellation. OneWeb was previously rumoured to be in talks with SpaceX to do the job with its well-proven Falcon 9.
“We have the biggest order ever for putting satellites into space,” Sir Richard said in a statement. “By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky.”
LauncherOne, officially announced in July 2012, is designed to launch small payloads weighing up to 100kg. Aiming for a 2016 commencement of commercial operations, the vehicle has already attracted interest, with several commercial customers including Skybox Imaging, Planetary Resources and GeoOptics having already purchased rides.
LauncherOne is designed to take off from aboard Virgin Galactic’s White Knight Two plane similarly to the recently crashed manned SpaceShipTwo.
The OneWeb satellite system aims to extend the networks of mobile operators globally, providing coverage in areas where it has not been feasible or cost-effective in the past to build ground-based infrastructure.
According to the International Telecommunications Union, as of the end of 2014, more than half the world’s population lacks Internet access.
“People who don't currently have access to proper teaching will be able to receive educations. People who want to create jobs will be able to develop new businesses connecting with the rest of the world,” Sir Richard explained. “The opportunities are endless.”
OneWeb terminals are designed to act as small cells with the ability to provide access to the surrounding area via a Wi-Fi, LTE, 3G or 2G connection using an operator partner’s licensed spectrum, or only LTE or Wi-Fi on unlicensed spectrum.
The terminals should be simple enough for the users to install themselves and provide coverage for all phones, tablets and computers in their vicinity.
OneWeb envisages that the network would also provide global emergency and first responder access for disaster situations, refugee camps or other areas in need.
In November last year, the company invited manufacturers to bid for the contract to build the satellites and is currently reviewing the proposals.