OneWeb is looking to raise around £3 billion to expand its constellation with second-generation satellites that could support navigation.
The British firm is part-owned by the UK government and currently has 428 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) at around 1,200km. By the end of 2023, OneWeb aims to have increased the size of its constellation to 648.
OneWeb is already able to provide speeds exceeding 100Mbps and with sub-100ms latency. While impressive, OneWeb can’t match the coverage and performance delivered by Starlink’s over 2,300-strong constellation.
The company has already received approval to launch a total of 2,000 satellites. 1,280 of the new satellites will be a second-generation model that will circle the planet in medium Earth orbit (MEO).
MEO is considered to be 8,500km and satellites operating at this altitude won’t have the low-latency prowess of those in LEO but could handle large data transfers instead of applications requiring minimal response times.
The UK government is keen on using OneWeb to deliver improved navigation features as the world looks beyond the ageing Global Positioning System (GPS).
In the tit-for-tat following the UK’s departure of the EU, the country lost full access to the latter’s Galileo system. Despite the UK’s large financial and technical contributions in building Galileo, the EU argues that Britain can no longer take part in the system due to rules that prohibit the sharing of military capabilities and sensitive information with non-EU states.
The UK has a thriving space industry that, in 2020, produced £16.5 billion in income and supported around 47,000 jobs. However, the UK has historically relied on other countries for launches.
A number of spaceports are planned to open across the UK – in addition to a groundbreaking sharing deal reached with the US – to enable launches to take place in the country.
Spaceport Cornwall’s CEO Melissa Thorpe told Express: “They (OneWeb) are a UK company, and our ambitions would be to work with any UK-based satellite manufacturing company.
“That is the whole point of creating a spaceport in the UK, to service our existing satellite base here.
“At the minute their [satellites] are all being shipped overseas to launch and we want to capture that marketplace here in the UK. We are open to working with any of the UK manufacturers, including OneWeb.”
A rocket carrying 36 of OneWeb’s satellites was due to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome back in March.
In the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Roscosmos refused to launch the satellites unless OneWeb accepted two demands: for the British government to sell its stake in the firm, and to guarantee they will not be used for military purposes.
The demands were unacceptable and the UK Government confirmed that it will not sell its stake in OneWeb. The company’s board voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur. Roscosmos, for its part, said that it won’t return any of OneWeb’s investments in the launches that were scheduled prior to Russia’s invasion.
OneWeb’s second generation satellites are expected to introduce enhanced navigation and positioning features to rival Galileo. Paired with the UK’s new spaceports, it could help to secure the UK’s ambition to become the space capital of Europe.
However, to achieve its lofty goals, OneWeb is going to need a lot of extra cash.
The Mail on Sunday reports that OneWeb is working with the UK Government’s export credit agency – UK Export Finance (UKEF) – and a similar agency in the US, to raise the funds from a group of banks.
French operator Eutelsat has also offered £4.6 billion to complete OneWeb’s network by 2030 as part of a merger proposal. However, the deal needs to pass regulators and some of Eutelsat’s shareholders still need convincing.
OneWeb will reportedly set out the plans for its second generation network at some point next month, including exactly what features it will pack.
(Image Credit: OneWeb)
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