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DSEI 2023: OneWeb plans for next-generation satellites as constellation nears global coverage

OneWeb has more than half of its ground infrastructure in place and the remainder is expected to be ready by early next year, while some satellites are still being moved into position and raised. While the system will provide pole-to-pole coverage it has non-technical geopolitical gaps, specifically China and Russia and one or two other places.

OneWeb – owned by Eutelsat, other companies and the UK MoD – is set to merge with Eutelsat depending on approval from that company’s shareholders in late September. The UK MoD stepped in a few years ago when one of the part-owners entered financial difficulties, an acknowledgment of the perceived importance of an LEO satellite communications system.

Chris Moore, company VP, defence and security and chief information security officer, said it was only in the past five or six years that the economic model to support an LEO system had become viable due to a reduction in launch costs, improvement in technology and better manufacturing techniques.

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‘Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the ability to control very accurately control large numbers of satellites, better than what humans can do, has all made this viable,’ Moore said.

‘In addition, we are learning from the likes of the car industry and mass production of vehicles. A lot of that has come into satellite production now and that has meant that the unit cost per satellite has dropped. The benefits of LEO, which have always been known, are now commercially viable.’

The company believes its 634 satellites are more than enough with a number in the high 500s likely adequate to provide global coverage but the additional 50 or so provide resilience and redundancy and therefore customer confidence. Despite this, the OneWeb may yet launch more satellites but this will be a decision at board level.

The plan to replace orbiting generation one satellites with a new iteration is at design stage but engagement has started with industry and tentatively the plan is to begin launching generation two in 2026/27.

The new version is designed to provide more capacity and features to allow for seamless transition for customers, but as these come online OneWeb is planning to decommission older satellites and bring them back into the earth’s atmosphere to burn up rather than remain in position as space clutter.

OneWeb has begun the process of looking at options to replace its orbiting satellites. (Image: OneWeb)

While the war in Ukraine has highlighted the role of EW in modern conflicts, Moore believes LEO systems have the resilience to defeat most jamming efforts.

‘I would never say anyone is safe from EW, but the advantage the LEO has over traditional orbits is that the satellites are moving, there are many of them, and big constellations are more difficult to jam,’ Moore said.

‘The are multiple satellites in view at any one time so if someone is using directional jamming they have to pick the right satellite but [the satellites] are moving very fast so the jammer is not looking at a single point in the sky so the technology of your jammer is becoming much more expensive.

‘Each satellite we have has a number of beams and each beam has a different frequency making it harder to jam. I’m not going to say we are immune but inherently it is just a bit more difficult [for EW effectors].’

The merger with Eutelsat is not a done deal but the company believes its LEO system with Eutelsat’s geostationary (GEO) system provides a natural synergy to provide a more efficient use of capacity and data management routing. 

The goal would be to provide terminals on the ground which are multi-orbit and multi-frequency, which then gives the user more choice and resilience.

Moore said the company was looking at the further development of its ground terminals to support users.

‘[This month] we will be rolling out a man-portable terminal which looks like a briefcase,’ Moore said.

‘Over the course of the year will be rolling out further flat panels from other manufacturers and our maritime service has been activated.’

Shephard’s DSEI 2023 coverage is sponsored by:

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