TAMPA, Fla. — Condosat operator Loft Orbital has ordered more than 15 satellite buses from Airbus under a deal announced Jan. 14 that sees the first OneWeb spin-off platforms built in France before transferring production in series in Florida.
Loft Orbital plans to receive the buses in 2023, leveraging the automated production line Airbus uses to build hundreds of satellites for OneWeb’s broadband megaconstellation as part of the Airbus OneWeb Satellites joint venture based in Florida.
Work to modify the Arrow satellite platform, including extending operational life and expanding the range of capabilities beyond broadband, will initially take place at Airbus facilities in Toulouse, France.
After building the first in France, Airbus said that the other Arrow-derived platforms would be manufactured on a large scale by Airbus OneWeb Satellites (AOS). The joint venture’s automated production line in Merritt Island, Florida, was designed to produce up to two satellites per day.
Even though Airbus is expected to fulfill most of the Loft Orbital order from the Florida factory, the contract is a solid win for France, according to a senior French government official quoted in the Airbus press release.
“I am very happy that the project presented by Loft with the support of Airbus relies on French suppliers, with more than 60% of the value being created in France,” said Bruno Le Maire, French Minister of Economy. , Finance and Recovery. in the press release.
San Francisco-based Loft Orbital buys satellite buses from multiple vendors and equips them with payloads carried on behalf of customers looking to avoid the hassle and expense of owning satellites.
Loft Orbital co-founder and CEO Pierre-Damien Vaujour said that while the company plans to use its initial supply from Arrow “to deliver to our customers who have ordered services based on a few dozen satellites, we see this as an opportunity to offer much broader constellation services to governments and businesses around the world.
He said SpaceNews in an interview that the Arrow-derived bus will become its “working satellite platform” as it leverages the scalability and legacy of the AOS factory.
The AOS announcement comes shortly after Loft Orbital announced it had ordered additional buses from LeoStella, after securing undisclosed clients looking to fly payloads in 2023.
LeoStella was already under contract to build a bus for a satellite that Loft Orbital plans to deploy in the first half of this year. A separate Loft Orbital satellite slated for launch in late 2022 will use a bus provided by Blue Canyon Technologies.
Loft Orbital is currently piloting two condos with buses built by LeoStella and Blue Canyon.
According to Vaujour, Loft Orbital’s deal for Arrow marks the first time a mass-produced megaconstellation bus has been sold to a commercial third party for theft of non-broadband payloads.
“It’s a completely different scale than anything we or the industry has done before,” he said.
Vaujour said Loft Orbital plans to take delivery of the Arrow-derived buses in 2023, using at least some of them for satellites slated for launch later in the year on behalf of a backlog of customers. .
“We got over $100 million in bookings,” Vaujour said, adding that Loft Orbital had “turned away customers because we just didn’t have enough bandwidth.”
He said the Arrow contract also has options “with fixed prices where we can just trigger a purchase order for any number of additional satellites.”
Plans to expand Loft Orbital’s business with a rush of satellite bus orders come after the company secured $140 million in a funding round completed in October and led by investment giant BlackRock .
The future of the Florida factory
Loft Orbital order provides some backlog for Florida factory facing uncertainty after OneWeb executives make conflicting statements on where it intends to build its planned second generation of satellites. In early December, OneWeb’s head of government affairs said the company, which is partly owned by the UK government, planned to open a factory in the UK to build the second-generation satellites. The following week, OneWeb’s chief technology officer said no decision had been made.
OneWeb’s first six first-generation satellites were built in Toulouse, before moving to series production at AOS in Florida. With 394 OneWeb satellites now in orbit, AOS is building 254 more to complete the constellation of 648 satellites that OneWeb plans to have in orbit before the end of the year.
An Airbus official in the United States said SpaceNews he has “no intention of closing the Florida plant”. The $85 million facility, located near major NASA and US Space Force launch facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida, opened in 2019.
“We remain committed to supporting OneWeb’s future projects, including Generation 2 satellites and those of our US government and industry customers,” the Airbus US official said via email. “Airbus will continue to use its manufacturing centers in the United States, France and the United Kingdom to be a leading supplier of satellites and their payloads to the global market.”
The U.S. Airbus official said AOS also “performs other subcontracts with Airbus for our U.S. government and industrial customers.”
These include work on two satellite buses for the Constellation Blackjack LEO, under a contract that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded last year to Canadian operator Telesat.
Sara Shell, public relations manager for Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency, said she couldn’t go into detail about the future of the facility due to agreements. of non-disclosure with OneWeb and Airbus.
However, she said: “It is safe to say that Space Florida is confident that the facility here in Cape Town will continue to produce satellites for multiple customers for many decades into the future.”