OneWeb Ltd, a privately owned startup bankrolled by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and other well-known firms, will build a factory to mass produce small satellites near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, two sources involved in the project told Reuters.
OneWeb plans an initial production run of 900 satellites to provide global, high-speed Internet access as early as 2019. The multibillion-dollar network would be more than 10 times larger than any previous satellite constellation.
Led by founder and chief executive Greg Wyler, a highly regarded satellite pioneer, OneWeb has raised $500 million from Virgin, Airbus, India’s Bharti Enterprises, chipmaker Qualcomm Inc., Hughes Network Systems, Intelsat SA, The Coca-Cola Co., and Mexico’s Totalplay.
An official announcement about the factory is scheduled for Tuesday morning at an industrial park adjacent to NASA’s spaceport, where the plant will be located. A number of localities in Florida and elsewhere had vied for the project.
The OneWeb venture will also mark the first time satellites are mass-produced, a potential game-changer in the rapidly evolving commercial space industry.
Similar projects are under development by Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, which last year landed a $1 billion investment by Google Inc and Fidelity Investments for another space-based Internet constellation.
OneWeb intends to not only manufacture its own spacecraft for high-speed Internet access, but also sell satellites configured for other purposes to other companies and organizations.
Europe’s Airbus Space and Defense Group, a partner in the project, has begun manufacturing an initial batch of 10 satellites for OneWeb at its Toulouse, France, manufacturing facility.
OneWeb will receive about $20 million in state and county financial incentives to locate near the Kennedy Space Center in the same industrial park where Jeff Bezos’ space company, Blue Origin, is building a rocket factory.
Some of OneWeb’s satellites will be flown by Branson’s space company, Virgin Galactic, which is developing a low-cost, small satellite launcher, as well as a suborbital passenger spaceship.
OneWeb also has signed launch contracts with Arianespace for 21 Soyuz rocket flights from the European Space Agency’s spaceport in French New Guinea. Up to 36 OneWeb satellites can fly on a single Soyuz rocket.
(Reporting by Irene Klotz; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Mary Milliken)