Airbus to build satellites for Richard Branson’s broadband-for-the-masses project

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First announced at the start of the year, Richard Branson’s plan to put satellites into orbit to deliver Web access to the global masses has taken a major step forward.

Airbus announced at the Paris Air Show on Monday it’s planning to build the world’s largest satellite constellation in partnership with Internet satellite firm OneWeb. While it’s not clear how much Airbus itself is investing in the project, finance is known to be coming from Branson’s Virgin Group as well as Qualcomm.

The European aerospace specialist will initially produce around 900 microsatellites, each weighing about 150kg and costing less than half a million dollars.

The first batch, comprising around 10 satellites, will be made at Airbus’s manufacturing plant in Toulouse, France before switching to a facility in the U.S. Once production is in full swing, Airbus hopes to build as many as four satellites a day.

The first satellites could go into operation as early as 2018. They’re expected to be put into orbit by LauncherOne, a spacecraft currently being developed by Branson’s Virgin Galactic team. The Virgin boss described LauncherOne as “much more efficient than the big rockets of the past. We can literally take off every three or four hours.” Reusable rocket technology currently under development at Airbus could also be used to launch the satellites once it’s ready.

Airbus is calling the project “a revolution in satellite manufacturing” that will provide “high-speed Internet connectivity equivalent to terrestrial fiber-optic networks” to “everyone, everywhere on Earth.”

François Auque, head of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, described the development as “a fantastic new chapter in our space story.”

He said that joining forces with OneWeb to build the microsatellites had inspired the companies “to develop innovative designs and processes that will dramatically lower the cost in large volumes for high performance space applications.” He added that the project’s goal was “challenging” though achievable.

Airbus and its partners are one of many groups racing to bring Internet connectivity to remote  and poorer parts of the planet. Facebook (working with several other high-profile companies) and Google (Project Loon) are both developing their own technology, while SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has also announced similar plans.

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