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OneWeb Satellites: Connection for people all over the globe

- 900 microsatellites to provide affordable internet worldwide
- First launches in 2018
- Reusable launchers and tugs to lower cost of going to space
- Venture jointly owned by Airbus Defence and Space and OneWeb

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Airbus Defence and Space and OneWeb Satellites have teamed up to close the technological gap between the developed and developing worlds. Airbus Defence and Space is to design and build more than 900 microsatellites for the OneWeb constellation, which would provide affordable high-speed Internet access across the globe. The first launches are planned for 2018.

The challenge is enormous, since satellites have never been mass produced before. A requirement to produce several small satellites a day has inspired us to develop innovative designs and processes that will dramatically lower the cost in large volumes for high performance space applications. We need to set up an assembly line that will be completely different from classic geostationary satellite assembly labs and organise a procurement supply chain that will be unlike anything the space sector has ever seen before.

The plan calls for satellites of less than 150kg each that feature fewer electrical connections between subsystems than is typical of today’s satellites. With first ten models to be made at Airbus Defence and Space facilities in France, full series production will take place at a dedicated plant in the USA.

Airbus Defence and Space, the world’s second largest space company, has leveraged resources and expertise across the entire Airbus Group to rise to the challenges this project presents.

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The head of OneWeb’s Space Systems Brian Holz is confident that “combining the innovation and large volume manufacturing techniques from its A350 aircraft production, with a rich history of building extremely reliable high performance space systems, Team Airbus will help to deliver the OneWeb system on time, providing reliable connectivity for customers.

These might sound like ground-breaking plans, but the concept is nothing new. The idea of constellations is as old as the hills. The difference is that today it’s being done. It’s a case of integrating what exists into space systems, rather than inventing new space ideas.

He also cites the concept of reusable launchers, which dates back many decades, but is only now coming close to realisation.  

For Airbus, work on Adeline (ADvanced Expendable Launcher with INnovative engine Economy) began back in 2010. It is a partly reusable launcher programme, which will enable the main engines and avionics of the launcher to be recovered and refurbished. Given this represents 70-80% of the launch vehicle’s total value, it could have a huge impact on the cost of going to space.

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The maiden flight of an Adeline reusable launch module is scheduled for 2025.

As well as launch vehicles, Airbus Defence and Space is exploring the idea of reusable tugs ‘parked’ in space, which could be ready by 2021. Together with the European Space Agency (ESA), it launched a project in January 2016 to create an autonomous in-orbit carrier. Capable of up to 15 missions, the space tug would collect a satellite from its launcher in low Earth orbit and ferry it to its final orbit, before returning for the next delivery. Without their own propulsion, satellites would be lighter, less complex and cheaper to manufacture. This would completely change the economics of both launchers and satellites.

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