CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 25 (Reuters) - Privately owned OneWeb, which plans to sell Internet services via satellite, signed contracts with launch service providers Virgin Galactic and Arianespace SA for 60 flights, OneWeb said on Thursday.
OneWeb, based in Britain’s Channel Islands, also said it has raised $500 million from a consortium of companies, including Europe’s Airbus Group, which will design and build 900 satellites for the project.
OneWeb plans to put a network of 648 small satellites, each weighing less than 331 pounds (150 kilograms), into orbit to provide global broadband and mobile telephone services. Some of the satellites will be kept on the ground as spares. OneWeb expects to begin launching its satellites in 2017.
The project will cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, OneWeb founder and Chief Executive Officer Greg Wyler said.
Startup Virgin Galactic, a U.S.-based company owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, will make 39 flights for OneWeb, with options for another 100 missions, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said.
The company expects to be able to fly up to three of OneWeb’s satellites at a time on its small LauncherOne air-launched rocket, Whitesides said.
LauncherOne is carried into the atmosphere aboard a jet aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo. The rocket drops from the airplane at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) so its motor can ignite and carry its cargo into space.
The satellites are released into orbit and the rocket eventually falls into the atmosphere and burns up. The plane returns to the runway.
Terms of the contract were not disclosed. Virgin has said LauncherOne will cost less than $10 million per flight. For OneWeb’s flights, WhiteKnightTwo will take off from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.
Virgin Galactic also is developing a passenger spaceship called SpaceShipTwo. Test flights are expected to resume late this year following a fatal accident in October.
OneWeb also signed contracts with Arianespace, the European multinational founded in 1980, for 21 Soyuz missions launching from the European Space Agency’s French Guiana spaceport. Soyuz, a medium-lift Russian-made rocket, can carry up to 36 OneWeb satellites at a time.
Other investors in OneWeb include Indian billionaire Sunil Mittal-backed Bharti Enterprises; Hughes Network Systems, a subsidiary of EchoStar Corp ; Intelsat SA ; chipmaker Qualcomm Inc ; Coca-Cola Co ; Virgin Group; and Totalplay, owned by Mexico’s Grupo Salinas.
Before starting OneWeb, Wyler co-founded satellite venture, O3b Networks, and briefly worked at Google Inc on another project to beam Internet access from space. (Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)