OneWeb founder plans to launch 100,000 satellites into space

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

The company announced on Monday that it has raised $50 million in seed funding from Prime Movers Lab, a fund that invests in breakthrough science start-ups.

E-Space aims to create a vast “mesh” network of small satellites capable of providing bespoke and commercial services to businesses and governments, from secure communications to remote infrastructure management.

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

Since 2019, the number of satellites in operation has increased by 50% to around 5,000, largely because new commercial groups are exploiting lower launch costs to create businesses in low Earth orbit, 150 to 200 km away. above the Earth. Elon Musk aims to launch some 40,000 satellites for his Starlink internet service.

The European Space Agency estimates that 330 m of debris less than 1 cm in diameter and 36,500 more than 10 cm are orbiting the planet.

This poses a serious risk to operational satellites. A stain of paint a few thousandths of a millimeter in diameter cracked the window of the International Space Station in 2016.

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

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

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

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

“How do you minimize a 300 kg sitting 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”, a- “It’s a whole bunch of innovations that have come together. He’s been thinking for years about 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 Internet services in low Earth orbit.

In 2020, OneWeb, after raising over $3 billion from investors, collapsed into bankruptcy after investor SoftBank refused to back a new funding round. It was eventually rescued by the UK government and Indian telecommunications group Bharti, and is rolling out commercial services this year.

Wyler, who left OneWeb in 2017, said he learned many lessons from the experience, the most important of which was not inviting vendors to invest in E-Space.

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

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

E-Space “must be free to decide its technology path, its supplier selection and its component path, where the shareholders are purely financial rather than 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 would likely require another round of funding, but insisted that its network would cost a fraction of existing LEO constellations. “The historic $5 billion to $10 billion spending pattern is broken,” he said. “We are operating at around 10% of the cost of previous LEO constellations.”

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

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