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OneWeb founder plans to launch 100,000 satellites in space comeback

Greg Wyler, the space entrepreneur who founded Britain’s OneWeb, plans to put up to 100,000 satellites in orbit this decade with his latest business venture E-Space.

The company on Monday said it had raised $50mn in seed funding from Prime Movers Lab, a fund that invests in breakthrough scientific start-ups.

E-Space aims to create a vast “mesh” network of small satellites that can deliver bespoke and commercial services to business and government, from secure communications to remote infrastructure management.

Wyler’s plans come as the world becomes increasingly concerned about the risk of collisions in orbit and resulting space debris.

Since 2019 the number of working satellites has risen 50 per cent to roughly 5,000, largely because new commercial groups are exploiting lower launch costs to build businesses in low-earth orbit, 150km-200km above the earth. Elon Musk aims to launch some 40,000 satellites for his Starlink internet service.

The European Space Agency estimates 330m pieces of debris less than 1cm across and 36,500 greater than 10cm are orbiting the planet.

This poses a serious risk to operational satellites. A fleck of paint just a few thousandths of a millimetre across cracked the window of the International Space Station in 2016.

Wyler insisted E-Space will leave low-earth orbit cleaner than before its satellites are launched, with a network that will collect and deorbit debris even as it provides connectivity services.

The satellites have a substantially smaller cross section than rivals, Wyler told the Financial Times, and will be designed to “crumple” rather than break apart when struck. They will also “entrain” any debris they encounter and automatically deorbit when a certain amount has been collected.

“Like oysters in the river that filter the river and clean it, our satellites are the first to be designed to clean space,” he said. “The more satellites we have, the cleaner space will be.”

Anton Brevde, partner at Prime Movers Lab and on the board of E-Space, suggested Wyler’s innovative design would do for satellites what Apple’s iPhone did for mobile phones.

“How do you minimise a 300kg sat to something that is an order of magnitude smaller? How do you go from the personal computer to the iPhone, something that is smaller and thinner,” he said. “It’s a whole bunch of innovation that came together. He has been brainstorming for years on how to make communications satellites as small and cheap as possible.”

Wyler is one of the space industry’s best-known innovators, having founded the 03b network now owned by Luxembourg’s SES and then OneWeb, a pioneer of low-earth orbit internet services.

In 2020 OneWeb, having raised more than $3bn from investors, collapsed into bankruptcy after investor SoftBank refused to back a new funding round. It was eventually rescued by the UK government and India’s Bharti telecom group, and is rolling out commercial services this year.

Wyler, who left OneWeb in 2017, said he had learnt many lessons from the experience, the most important of which was not to invite suppliers to invest in E-Space.

OneWeb drew investment from Airbus, which manufactured the satellites, Virgin Group, whose Virgin Galactic provided launch services, and Qualcomm, which helped design some of the satellite technology.

“OneWeb was captive to its shareholders for products,” he said. “All the cost growth came from the shareholders.”

E-Space “must be able to freely decide on its technology path, on its vendor selection and on its component path, where shareholders are purely financial as opposed to strategic,” he added.

The start-up plans to launch its first test satellites next month and a second batch at the end of the year, after which it aims to start building its constellation.

Wyler acknowledged that E-Space was likely to require another funding round but insisted his network would cost a fraction of existing LEO constellations. “The historical model of spending $5bn-$10bn is broken,” he said. “We are running at about 10 per cent of the cost of prior LEO constellations.”

E-Space has all the licences needed to be able to deliver the service on multiple frequencies, Wyler said. They had been acquired through Rwanda, which last year applied to the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva to license more than 300,000 satellites. The Rwandan government was an original investor in OneWeb. Financial Times

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