OneWeb said Monday that it has reached an agreement with SpaceX to resume the launch of the company’s satellite internet constellation later this year, just 18 days after it suspended the launch of Russia’s Soyuz rockets.
Few details of the agreement were released on Monday morning. “The terms of the agreement with SpaceX are confidential,” OneWeb said in a statement.
OneWeb said a “first launch” with SpaceX is expected before the end of this year, indicating that the company expects multiple flights on SpaceX rockets.
The company launched 428 of the 648 planned first-generation broadband satellites on 13 Soyuz missiles, accounting for two-thirds of its fleet. The missions were booked with Arianespace, the French launch service provider with the rights to market and manage Soyuz commercial launches.
Arianespace was about to make six more launches of the Soyuz from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
OneWeb aims to launch its 14th mission with 36 other satellites on March 4 on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, but the Russian Space Agency, led by Dmitry Rogozin, has set conditions for the mission after the rocket was rolled to the launch pad on March 2.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and subsequent Western sanctions, Rogozin demanded that OneWeb services provided by satellite internet not be used for military purposes, and that the UK government relinquish its stake in OneWeb. The UK government refused, and OneWeb announced on March 3 that it would suspend launches from Baikonur.
That left OneWeb in a bind, as 220 satellites were built or under construction at the company’s plant near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Now there will be no need to ship these satellites to another continent for launch.
“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision of the limitless potential of space,” said OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson. “With these launch plans in place, we are on track to finish building our entire fleet of satellites and deliver strong, fast and secure connectivity around the world.”
OneWeb hasn’t disclosed how many launches it has booked with SpaceX, or how many OneWeb satellites will fly on each mission. OneWeb missions with SpaceX are supposed to be launched on Falcon 9 rockets, but OneWeb hasn’t specified the launch vehicle’s configuration.
Soyuz rockets typically launched from 34 to 36 satellites per OneWeb mission.
Each OneWeb satellite weighs about 324 pounds (147 kilograms), about half the launch mass of the SpaceX Starlink satellite. SpaceX typically launches about 50 Starlink satellites on each assigned flight aboard its Falcon 9 rockets.
SpaceX could, in theory, launch more than 36 OneWeb satellites in a single mission. But OneWeb’s satellite deployment hubs designed by RUAG Space have already been designed and built, and can be reused on SpaceX missions. The diffusers can accommodate a maximum of 36 spacecraft.
The current generation of Starlink satellites – eventually expected to number about 4,400 spacecraft – fly in five orbital “shells” 335 to 350 miles (540 to 550 kilometers) above Earth, with the satellites positioned at orbital directions or angles. different, on the equator. So far, SpaceX has focused on launching Starlink satellites into medium-inclination orbits at about 53 degrees to the equator.
OneWeb’s satellites fly into a polar orbit at a higher altitude, about 745 miles (1,200 kilometers). OneWeb’s network architecture requires fewer satellites than SpaceX’s Starlink fleet. Both companies are looking to second-generation satellites to add to their constellations.
SpaceX can launch satellites into polar orbit from Cape Canaveral or the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. OneWeb has not specified a launch site for its missions with SpaceX.
After emerging from bankruptcy in late 2020, OneWeb was placed under the ownership of the UK government and Bharti Global, an Indian telecom operator. Additional fundraising added other major investors in OneWeb, including Japanese company SoftBank, French satellite communications company Eutelsat, US-based Hughes, and South Korean business conglomerate Hanwha.
OneWeb, based in London, says it has activated internet for customers above 50 degrees north latitude. Partial coverage was enabled last year, but the company needs its full fleet to start global service.
The satellite Internet is intended to reach remote communities, aircraft, ships, and military users.
OneWeb’s move from Russia’s Soyuz to SpaceX is a change in the commercial space industry. At the time Arianespace signed its launch contract with OneWeb in 2015, this was the largest commercial launch agreement in history, with a financial value of over $1 billion.
SpaceX is building its own satellite internet constellation, called Starlink. OneWeb and Starlink are oriented towards different segments of the communications market, but their networks are similar, and they are the only two of the Internet’s “mega constellations” in their reach.
OneWeb considered American, European, Indian and Japanese missiles to fill the void created by the Soyuz missile ban. Analysts said SpaceX – with its already high flight rate and stockpile of reusable boosters – is likely to be OneWeb’s best bet to quickly acquire the rest of its satellites.
“I continue to believe that SpaceX is the fastest path to complete the first-generation OneWeb constellation, but … they have their own launch demands with customers,” Caleb Henry, chief industry analyst at Quilty Analytics, said in an interview earlier this month. “The difference with SpaceX is that they have backlog and storage of their aerial boosters, so they don’t have to throttle production to support OneWeb.”
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