The most viable competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink Internet constellation has completed a demonstration launch, placing the first six OneWeb satellites in a circular orbit 1000 km (620 mi) above Earth.
Designed as a constellation of approximately 650-900 satellites, OneWeb aims to provide uninterrupted Internet access across the world with a focus on affordability for those living without a basic communications infrastructure. Assuming OneWeb’s first six spacecraft operate nominally in orbit, the first phase of the company’s constellation could be completed by late 2020 or early 2021, leading to initial operations with customers actually able to access the internet through their spacecraft.
LAUNCH! Soyuz ST-B launches with the first batch of OneWeb satellites.
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) February 27, 2019
Compared to OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation (even in its earliest phases) is dramatically more expansive, featuring anywhere from 2-7x as many spacecraft and an overall bandwidth that is likely even greater still. As a partial consequence, Starlink spacecraft will likely be more complex and expensive to mass-produce and operate. Combined with optical (laser) interlinks that could make Starlink truly revolutionary, it remains to be seen whether the costs of high-tech solutions can be outweighed by their intrinsic benefits.
6/6 – all 6 of the satellites have successfully separated from the rocket. They will now deploy their solar panels and begin generating power from the sun, to begin their journey to provide #ConnectivityEverywhere #OneWebLaunch
— OneWeb (@OneWeb) February 27, 2019
Thanks to the relative simplicity and lower mass of OneWeb’s spacecraft, as well as a partnership with industry heavyweight Airbus Defence and Space and the partial completion of a Florida-based satellite factory, OneWeb undeniably has several steps up on SpaceX, at least with respect to the goal of reaching initial commercial operations as quickly as possible. SpaceX has already gained experience operating its first two demonstration satellites – known as Tintin A and B – for a full year on-orbit, but all that is known Starlink’s first operational launches is that CEO Elon Musk is dead-set on commencing deployment no later than June 2019. Meanwhile, the status of SpaceX’s production facilities is unclear, with two mid-sized buildings in Redmond, Washington known to be dedicated to the program.
An array of job posts and brief hints from primary and secondary sources indicate that the Starlink program is already heavily focused on ramping up spacecraft production after several years of development. It’s unclear if a planned second set of prototype satellites is still on the books, hinted at by Musk in the months after the first pair’s February 2018 launch debut.
Aside from the satellites themselves, prospective global internet constellation operators must face the equally critical and challenging task of developing a simultaneously high-performance and low-cost user terminal, the antenna and associated electronics that turn spacecraft signals into an accessible and reliable internet connection. SpaceX’s work in this direction has been silent, while OneWeb founder Greg Wyler recently began teasing and describing the company’s own work in that direction, hinting that his team has already arrived at a $15 antenna prototype capable of supporting 20-60 Mbps (megabits per second).
First two Starlink demo satellites, called Tintin A & B, deployed and communicating to Earth stations pic.twitter.com/TfI53wHEtz
— Elon Tusk (@elonmusk) February 22, 2018
Meanwhile, the hopeful success of the company’s first launch will pave the way for the first full launch of OneWeb spacecraft, potentially as many as 32-36 at once on Arianespace’s Russian Soyuz 2 launch vehicle. OneWeb has 21 launches manifested on Soyuz 2 rockets, scheduled to occur at a more or less monthly cadence between the first operational launch and the completion of Phase 1’s 650-satellite constellation. Shortly after the first launch was completed, Arianespace CEO Stéphane Israël announced that it had struck a deal with OneWeb as the official customer for the first two launches of its Ariane 6 rocket, meant to debut as early as 2020.
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