Virgin Galactic wants to launch 2,400 comm. satellites to offer ubiquitous broadband

CEO Richard Branson plans to initially launch a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation of 648 satellites to get the OneWeb company rolling.

wk and l2 ground mini
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson this week said he wants to launch as many as 2,400 small satellites in an effort to set up a constellation capable of bringing broadband communications through a company called OneWeb to millions of people who do not have it. He said he plans to initially launch a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation of 648 satellites to get the project rolling.

 OneWeb also got backing from Qualcomm for this planned world-wide Internet service. OneWeb said it plans to work with local partners to provide access. OneWeb terminals act as small cells with the ability to provide access to the surrounding area via a WiFi, LTE, 3G or 2G connection using an operator partner’s licensed spectrum, or only LTE or WiFi on unlicensed spectrum.

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 Branson wrote in his blog that the company is working to build a two-stage rocket, known as LauncherOne that would air-launch launch from the company's existing WhiteKnightTwo aircraft at 45,000 to 50,000ft.

WhiteKnightTwo is also the launch aircraft for Virgin Galactic’s space tourism venture which had a major setback in October when the spaceship it launched crashed killing one pilot and injuring the other.

 The new rocket is something completely different.

 “LauncherOne will be built using advanced composite structures, and powered by our new family of LOX/RP-1 liquid rocket engines. Each LauncherOne mission will be capable of delivering as much as 225 kilograms (500 pounds) to a low inclination Low Earth Orbit or 120 kilograms (265 pounds) to a high-altitude Sun-Synchronous Orbit, for a price of less than $10M,” Branson wrote.

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l1 staging 02 mini Virgin Galactic

Branson told CNBC:"We believe this is a very efficient way of getting satellites into space," he said. "It's much more efficient than the big rockets of the past. We can literally take off every three or four hours." Branson said the initial investment for the first batch of satellites will hover around $2 billion. "We can still be very competitive on prices, as far as the end-user is concerned," he said. "We believe that the break-even of this is not enormous. We feel it makes sense economically as well."

Of the ultimate goal of the project – ubiquitous internet access, Branson wrote: “It was great to see President Obama announcing new steps to help more Americans access better broadband. This project will take that goal further, covering areas around the globe that desperately need high speed internet and telephony. The opportunity to improve access to education, health care, financial systems, and employment will take a revolution, one that we are tremendously proud to be part of. Providing affordable high-speed Internet access for the world’s unconnected populations is a huge challenge, but one we can’t wait to achieve.”

l1 portrait Virgin Galactic

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