OneWeb to resume launches in December after bankruptcy

A Soyuz rocket loaded with 34 OneWeb satellites stands on a launch pad in February at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

Seeking to clear bankruptcy under new ownership before the end of the year, OneWeb announced Monday it is set to resume launching satellites for its global broadband network in December under a modified 16-launch contract with Arianespace.

OneWeb said it has amended its launch contract with Arianespace — originally signed in 2015 — to allow the company to complete deployment of its global constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit before the end of 2022.

The next launch is scheduled for December with 36 OneWeb satellites. The payloads will ride to orbit aboard a Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage launched from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia, according to Arianespace.

“I am delighted that we are back on track to support the deployment of the OneWeb constellation and the company’s mission to bridge the digital divide at a global scale,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. “Our teams already are working hard to ensure a smooth and quick restart of the launch campaigns by year-end 2020.”

OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States in March after launching 74 of 648 planned satellites, furloughing much its staff while keeping a skeleton team on-board to continue safely operating the spacecraft already in orbit.

Arianespace has launched three dedicated Soyuz missions with OneWeb satellites since February 2019. OneWeb is Arianespace’s largest commercial customer, and the 16 Soyuz launches represent the lion’s share of Arianespace’s backlog of Soyuz flights.

Arianespace also oversees launches of the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and light-class Vega rockets, both made in Europe.

The launch of 36 more OneWeb satellites in December will give the company 110 spacecraft in orbit. After the launch in December, 15 more Soyuz launches from Vostochny, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana will complete the sequence of missions to place more than 600 OneWeb satellites in orbit.

OneWeb’s original launch contract with Arianespace was for 21 Soyuz launches. In 2019, OneWeb and Arianespace agreed that OneWeb satellites would fly on the inaugural launch of the next-generation Ariane 6 rocket, a mission now scheduled for late 2021.

An Arianespace spokesperson said OneWeb is no longer planning to launch its satellites on the first Ariane 6 mission.

In March, OneWeb said it was unsuccessful in efforts to raise additional money from its previous owners — led by the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank — to fund the company’s satellite constellation and the start of of commercial services.

OneWeb is headquartered in London with a significant workforce in the United States, and the company’s spacecraft are built near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus named OneWeb Satellites.

In July, the UK government and the Indian mobile telecom operator Bharti Global announced they will each commit $500 million to purchase OneWeb. OneWeb said the acquisition will provide enough capital for the company to complete the deployment of its global broadband network, a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink system.

OneWeb said it anticipates completing the sale of the company to its new owners in before the end of the year, subject to confirmation of a restructuring plan, court approval, and regulatory consents.

File photo of 34 OneWeb satellites, mounted on their RUAG Space dispenser, as they are lowered onto a Russian Fregat upper stage before a previous launch. Credit: Arianespace

SpaceX has launched more than 700 of a planned initial network of 1,440 Starlink broadband satellites to provide Internet service to most of the populated world. OneWeb’s satellites orbit higher and fly in polar orbits, requiring fewer spacecraft for global coverage.

Amazon’s planned Kuiper network is also in development to provide global Internet services with a “megaconstellation” of thousands of satellites. No Kuiper satellites have launched yet.

OneWeb said Monday it aims to begin commercial services by the end of 2021.

“Initial regions will include: The United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic seas and Canada,” OneWeb said in a statement.

OneWeb said the amended launch contract is an “important milestone” as the company plans to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The launch schedule remains subject to confirmation of OneWeb’s restructuring plan, the company said, but it confirms OneWeb will be “well-placed to offer enterprise-grade connectivity services for communities, businesses, and governments in a short timeframe.”

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