The ambitious OneWeb satellite mega-constellation has taken another step towards reality, having secured $500m of funding from a group of high-profile investors.
Europe’s aerospace manufacturer Airbus and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group are among benefactors of the project that aims to beam internet signals directly from space to users in remote areas around the world that lack connectivity.
A brainchild of US entrepreneur Greg Wyler, the constellation will consist of almost 650 small satellites, each weighing 150kg. Half of the satellites will orbit at an altitude of 800km and half at 950km above the Earth’s surface.
Airbus was announced as the manufacturer of the satellites earlier this month, while Branson’s Virgin Galactic will provide most of the launchers. The main launch vehicle will be Launcher One, which is currently under development.
OneWeb said yesterday the constellation will require 65 rocket launches with 39 served by Virgin Galactic and the remaining 21 by Europe’s Arianespace using Russian Soyuz rockets.
Qualcomm, Coca-Cola, Mexico's Grupo Salinas, Hughes Network Systems, a unit of EchoStar, Intelsat and Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal's Bharti Enterprises have all contributed to the current round of funding.
Despite the current funding success, OneWeb still needs to secure additional financing, as the overall cost of the project is estimated at between $1.5bn and $2bn.
The company hopes to commence operations in 2019, with the first satellites to be delivered to space in 2017. If the firm fails to deploy its network of geosynchronous satellites by 2020, it risks losing the licence awarded by international spectrum regulators.
LauncherOne - which takes off from aboard the WhiteKnightTwo carrier in a similar manner to Virgin’s manned spacecraft SpaceShipTwo - will be able to deliver two or three satellites in one go, said Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides.
Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Virgin said LauncherOne should cost less than $10m per flight.
Airbus will set up a new manufacturing facility in the USA where the bulk of the satellites will be manufactured.
OneWeb's satellites will provide broadband internet services enabling voice and data communications via user terminals on the ground.
The project hopes to make a difference in the lives of some three billion people around the world that are still living without regular access to the worldwide web.