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OneWeb’s 700-satellite constellation is right on schedule


There is nothing better than finding a free open Wi-Fi signal when you’re wandering around the world, especially if you’re using your navigation app or something else that eats up a lot of your phone’s data plan. If that sounds good, imagine this scenario: global broadband, provided by a network of satellites orbiting at about 500 miles (800 km) above the surface of the Earth. That goal is what OneWeb, formerly known as WorldVu, is working toward with their satellite constellation plan, which is on schedule to start launching the first of these unique satellites in 2017.

Humble beginnings

Global broadband is a noble concept, but it’s one that has been nearly impossible to get off the ground — no pun intended. Most companies that have attempted to start setting up a global broadband network have failed or have had to abandon their projects in favor of other, more profitable pursuits. For instance, the companies Iridium and GlobalStar both ended up filing bankruptcy over this sort of project, though they did manage to finally turn things around. Teledesic, part of Microsoft, gave up when the project proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

OneWeb, which started life as WorldVu, is a global communications company that moved into the realm of global broadband via satellite in 2014 when it acquired components of SkyBridge which failed when attempting to get the same sort of satellite-based broadband project started.

Right now, though, OneWeb is poised to make history by setting up the first successful satellite constellation for global broadband access.

Broadband dreams

A 700-satellite strong global broadband network could potentially provide internet access to people all over the world, especially those who don’t have any other access to internet services.

While we don’t know what the final specifications will be for this satellite network, the goal right now is for each satellite to be capable of 6 GB/s of data transmission. When you pair that with the sheer number of satellites planned as part of this constellation, the numbers are staggering. In total, the network could possibly transmit 4.2 TB/s of data for users around the world.

Cost to fly

One of the biggest thing standing in the way of any satellite broadband network is the sheer cost of building and launching so many satellites. Launching a traditional satellite can cost anywhere from $50 million to $400 million, depending on the weight and lifespan of the device.

OneWeb’s goal is to build and launch each of these satellites for less than $500,000 each. Even cutting the price per satellite down so far, though, the overall cost of the project is still expected to fall somewhere around $3 billion when all is said and done.

Right now, OneWeb is working with Space Florida to build a 100,000 square foot satellite construction facility in Titusville, on Florida’s space coast. Once complete, this facility is where the majority of the constellation’s satellites will be built. Since every spacecraft must be built to withstand both launch and life in space, they must be manufactured with efficient heat distribution systems. Since they cost so much to build, it’s important to maintain quality standards.

Right on schedule

Once the production facility is working at full capacity, it will be capable of fully assembling 15 satellites a week, which is an unheard of pace for satellite production, but it will be necessary if it’s going to get nearly 700 satellites assembled and launched in time.

The first 10 satellites will be carried into orbit by a Soyuz Rocket sometime toward the end of 2017 for testing and calibration. Once they’re successfully set up in orbit, the remaining satellites will be produced, launched and positioned to set up the global network.

OneWeb is working under a deadline, though. They have until 2019 to get the network operating, or the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) could grant the spectrum rights to another company.

With the sheer amount of money being spent on this project, it will be amazing to see where it goes after those first 10 satellites are launched in 2017.

Megan Ray Nichols is a science writer and editor of Schooled By Science.  When she isn’t writing, Megan enjoys camping, hiking, and stargazing. She invites you to follow her on Twitter @nicholsrmegan.

Featured image credit: OneWeb

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