PARIS – Startup spacecraft manufacturer OneWeb Satellites has selected an industrial park near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as home to a clean-sheet production facility that will crank out dozens of small broadband satellites each month.                                                                       

Backed with co-financing from the state of Florida, the joint venture of OneWeb LLC and Airbus Defense and Space says it will invest $85 million in the new factory – the first ever to mass-produce spacecraft – as part of the company’s plan to deploy a constellation of hundreds of high-speed, low-latency Internet satellites.

The new OneWeb factory will be located at Exploration Park, not far from where NASA will test-fly a new space launch system in 2018 and SpaceX and Boeing will send manned missions to the International Space Station.

Slated to open in 2017, the new facility will comprise more than 100,000 sq. ft. and employ 250 people in an effort to turn out 15 satellites per week at full capacity, each weighing 150 kg and boasting electric propulsion that will be used to raise the spacecraft to their operating orbit.

Beyond the OneWeb constellation, the Florida manufacturing site will test industrialization methods for series production of other satellites and related equipment, which Airbus Defense and Space will market to fleet operators of future constellations.

“It is going to open enormous opportunities for other customers besides OneWeb,” OneWeb Satellites CEO Brian Holz said during an April 19 ceremony unveiling the location of the new facility. “We are seeing interest from the U.S. government, from governments around the world, even NASA and others, to tap that capability. We talk about 250 jobs at OneWeb, but we’re hoping to do much bigger things in Florida and create opportunity even beyond that.”

OneWeb LLC, which has drawn financial backing from Virgin Group, chip-maker Qualcomm and others in addition to Airbus, is planning a fleet of 900 spacecraft to support its space-based Internet system, including 648 operational satellites and in-orbit spares spread across more than a dozen orbital planes, as well as ground spares.

Airbus is currently developing the first flight models, which it will produce at its facilities in Toulouse. Airbus says a prototype production line there will assemble and test the first 10 satellites, and check and validate industrial solutions for the series production.

“In June 2015, we started from scratch to create a new satellite design and manufacturing company,” said François Auque, head of space systems at Airbus Defense and Space. “In both Florida and Europe, we are now embarking on the next stage of an unprecedented venture in the space industry: a site that can mass-produce dozens of satellites every month. All this, of course, without affecting the levels of quality and technology that are essential when it comes to spacecraft – complex machines that need to operate for several years in space.”

Since last summer, when OneWeb LLC tapped Airbus as an equal partner in the OneWeb Satellites joint venture, the startup has said it will benefit from the aerospace giant’s expertise in manufacturing and assembly. The new facility will use robotics to help lower the cost of developing the satellites, one of which Holz says will be produced in an 8 hr. shift.

In addition, the spacecraft’s highly modular design will lend itself to marketing small satellites and components to other operators, with cycle times reduced from years to months.

“Because we’ll have recurring production, it will allow us to take orders in a very compressed way,” Holz said during a press conference following the ceremony, turning them around in as little as three months. “We’re looking at business models that will support that. We can take a contract order in 2017 and start executing on it in late 2017 or early 2018.”

The factory will incorporate state-of-the-art automation, test equipment, and data acquisition capabilities to shorten assembly times and provide a means to analyze factory performance and make improvements.

“With this new facility we will be able to iterate, update and continuously improve the satellites’ design and performance, and being right at the Space Center using Virgin Galactic we will be able to launch new satellites within hours of completion,” said OneWeb LLC founder Greg Wyler, who helped found Ka-band satellite fleet operator O3b Networks before leaving to start OneWeb.

Although Virgin Galactic will launch OneWeb replacement satellites one or two at a time, the Arianespace launch consortium is expected to orbit the first 10 prototype units on a Europeanized Soyuz from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, in late 2017. After that, the Evry, France-based company is under contract to launch the rest in batches of 32 satellites each on Russian Soyuz rockets from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan or the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia by the end of 2019.

Based in the U.K.’s Channel Islands, OneWeb LLC has raised $500 million to develop and launch the constellation, though it will need $2-$3 billion to complete the project.

Exploration Park is already home to a number of established and emerging aerospace companies, including Harris Corp., Thales, Embraer, Rockwell Collins and Blue Origin – the Jeff Bezos-led startup developing reusable launch vehicles and suborbital spacecraft.

“The state of Florida and Space Florida really understood our business needs and gave us an outstanding offer to locate in Exploration Park,” Holz said. “Our high-volume satellite production uses many of the same technologies as aircraft production, and Florida has become a center of excellence for both aviation and space-related technologies. We will leverage much of the local aerospace capability, expanding opportunity in the Space Coast region, and we also anticipate many of our suppliers to co-locate operations near our facility.”