SpaceX, OneWeb Detail Constellation Plans to Congress

An artist's impression of a satellite by OneWeb.
An artist's impression of a satellite by OneWeb. (Image credit: OneWeb)

WASHINGTON — SpaceX and OneWeb say they are within months of launching the first satellites in their competing megaconstellations of broadband smallsats designed to bring internet to every corner of the globe.

Testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Oct. 25, executives from SpaceX and One web provided updates on their constellation deployment, as well as steps they've taken to mitigate the risk of space debris from thousands of satellites they aim to deploy into low Earth orbit in the years ahead. 

First SpaceX satellites in "next few months"

SpaceX vice president of satellite government affairs Patricia Cooper said the company's first two prototype satellites will launch "within the next few months" to validate in-house technology ahead of an operational launch campaign in 2019.

Launching the full constellation of 4,425 Ka- and Ku-band satellites would take about five years, she said.

"We would expect to provide commercial service as early as 800 satellites deployed, which is probably in the 2020, 2021 timeframe," she said.

SpaceX plans to use its own rockets to launch its broadband constellation, and similar to its other projects, is building most of the satellites in-house, preferring vertical integration to reliance on a large base of suppliers. The company did not give a timeline for its larger proposed constellation of 7,500 V-band satellites, which would circle the Earth in an orbit below the first constellation.

In discussing SpaceX's Ka-/Ku-band system, Cooper said the satellites will have optical laser links to connect satellites in the fleet, and more than 20 will be visible from any spot in the U.S.

"Customers can aggregate capacity where there is a concentration of demand, and diffuse capacity where those end users are in different, more widely geographically dispersed locations," she said. "By building more capacity on orbit we'll be able to manage our network and groom our capacity in a different way."

Cooper said SpaceX broadband customers will be able to connect to the constellation using "easy to install end-user terminals that all but remove the incremental cost of new users joining our network."

OneWeb: Three constellation generations, first starts service in 2019

OneWeb still expects to begin service with its first-generation constellation of roughly 900 satellites in 2019, though the launch date for the first 10 satellites has slipped by two months. Greg Wyler, OneWeb's founder and executive chairman, said the first launch is now scheduled for May instead of March. 

Greg Wyler, founder and executive chairman of OneWeb. Credit: SpaceNews screen capture from Oct. 25 Senate hearing. (Image credit: U.S. Senate via SpaceNews)

Arianespace is OneWeb's primary launch partner and will use Europeanized Soyuz rockets to loft most of the initial constellation. OneWeb has also contracted with Virgin Orbit for 39 launches using its still-in-development LauncherOne dedicated smallsat vehicle. Blue Origin is under contract for five OneWeb launches with the future New Glenn rocket. In contrast to SpaceX and Canadian operator Telesat, OneWeb is not launching prototypes. It's first satellites are the operator's cornerstone of the larger constellation, which will be built out during 2018.

Wyler said OneWeb has three generations of its constellation already planned, with the first offering peak speeds of 500Mbps to rural users and other customers.

"Our second constellation planned, for 2021, will enable ultra-high speeds beyond 2.5 Gbps — faster than fiber — direct to every rural home using a small lightweight antenna," Wyler said. "We have a third constellation planned for 2023 which will continue to increase our total capacity until we can support 1 billion consumers globally by 2025. In total, we look to invest nearly $30 billion to achieve our mission of fully bridging the global digital divide by 2027."

Wyler said OneWeb's first constellation will have 7 terabits of capacity, followed by 120 terabits in the second generation, and 1,000 terabits of capacity by 2025.

Space debris

Both OneWeb and SpaceX said they are designing their constellations to prevent the risk of a runaway space-debris scenario where one or more collisions creates an escalating number of fragments that ultimately pollutes sections of space beyond human use. Cooper said SpaceX is designing its satellites to make thousands of maneuvers during their lifetimes in order to avoid hitting other objects and to deorbit.

"We are bringing to bear the reliability that NASA entrusts for us to take human NASA astronauts to the space station to bear in that responsibility of operating in space," she said.

A collision in space would cause the opportunities that OneWeb and other satellite operators are pursuing to "vanish in the blink of an eye," Wyler said. "We cannot have that. We have to make sure that all of the satellite systems have their own altitudes, that they are not all at the same place physically at the same time." Wyler urged Congress to take the lead on space debris and set an example for other nations to follow.

OneWeb has described its deorbit unit as the most reliable function of each satellite. Wyler said OneWeb has intentionally distanced its constellation from other existing players "to reduce the risk of inter-constellation debris creation."

"These best practices have been adopted by others as there remain many altitudes for safe space operations," he said.

Cooper added that Congress should encourage better coordination between agencies that handle orbital safety, and consider additional investments in the space situational awareness tracking systems.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Senior Analyst, Quilty Analytics

Caleb Henry is a senior analyst for Quilty Analytics and a former staff writer for the space industry publication SpaceNews. From 2016 to 2020, Caleb covered the global satellite industry for SpaceNews, chronicling everything from launches, spacecraft manufacturing and ground infrastructure. Caleb's work has also appeared in NewSpace Global and Access Intelligence. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in astronomy from Grove City College.