Soyuz launch adds 36 satellites to OneWeb’s global internet network

A Soyuz rocket lifts off from the Vostochny Cosmodrome on the fifth mission to deliver OneWeb satellites to orbit. Credit: Roscosmos

A Soyuz rocket took off from a cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East and deployed 36 Florida-built OneWeb internet satellites into orbit Thursday. Another batch of OneWeb satellites will launch next month, continuing the build-out of a planned fleet of 648 spacecraft to provide global broadband services.

The 36 satellites launched at 10:47:33 p.m. EDT Wednesday (0247:33 GMT; 11:47:33 a.m. local time) from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s newest spaceport located in the far eastern Amur Oblast near the Chinese border.

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket fired off the launch pad at Vostochny with nearly a million pounds of thrust, turning north to place the OneWeb satellites into an orbit going over Earth’s poles.

Live video beamed back to Earth from the Soyuz rocket showed the vehicle’s four liquid-fueled boosters dropping away about two minutes after liftoff, followed by separation of the rocket’s payload shroud and core stage. A third stage engine ignited to power the OneWeb satellites to near orbital velocity, then a Fregat upper stage released from the top of the rocket for a pair of main engine burns to place the spacecraft at the correct altitude for deployment.

The OneWeb satellites, each with a mass of about 325 pounds (147.5 kilograms), separated from a dispenser on the Fregat upper stage four at a time. Control thrusters on the upper stage fired between each deployment to ensure proper spacing between the satellites.

The final quartet of spacecraft deployed from the Fregat stage nearly four hours into the mission. OneWeb officials confirmed its control team established contact with all 36 satellites, which were expected to unfurl solar panels and begin post-launch checkouts.

The OneWeb satellites carry Ku-band and Ka-band antennas to link with customers and ground stations, and deployable solar array wings. The OneWeb satellites will use xenon-fueled ion thrusters to raise altitude from their planned 279-mile-high (450-kilometer) deployment orbit to around 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) over the next few months, where controllers will ready the spacecraft for service.

In a post-launch press release, OneWeb said this mission was the second in a “five-launch program that will enable OneWeb’s connectivity solution to reach all regions north of 50 degrees latitude by the middle of 2021.”

OneWeb said services will start by the end of the year, giving the company the “ability to connect millions of consumers in the northern hemisphere.

“These services will cover the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada, and will be switched on before the end of the year,” the company said. “OneWeb then intends to make global services available in 2022..”

“The next launch in the series is scheduled for the end of April, as we continue our drive towards commercial service this year,” said Neil Masterson, OneWeb’s CEO. “OneWeb is rising to the challenge of our mission to provide connectivity to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Backed by exemplary shareholders, we are connecting the world.”

OneWeb’s satellites are built by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus. The factory operated by the venture, named OneWeb Satellites, is located at Exploration Park near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This launch was OneWeb’s second mission since emerging from bankruptcy last year. During the bankruptcy proceedings, the UK government and the Indian mobile telecom operator Bharti Global purchased OneWeb, which is headquartered in London and has satellite operations centers in Britain and Virginia.

The London-based company plans to deploy an initial constellation of 648 satellites, with 588 active spacecraft and 60 spares. This launch was the fifth of 19 dedicated Soyuz flights for the OneWeb constellation, and the first of the year.

“This latest launch is yet another boost for OneWeb and their ambitious plans to connect people and businesses across the globe to fast and reliable broadband,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, the UK business secretary. “Our support for OneWeb puts the UK at the forefront of the latest advances in space technology and demonstrates our commitment to grow Britain’s competitive advantage in this field.”

OneWeb bought the Soyuz launches from Arianespace, which oversees Soyuz flights from the Guiana Space Center. Through its subsidiary Starsem, Arianespace also manages commercial Soyuz launch services from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and from Vostochny.

Thirty-six OneWeb satellites are prepared for launch from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia. Credit: OneWeb

The launch of 36 more OneWeb satellites came less than 24 hours after SpaceX deployed 60 satellites for its Starlink internet network. With the latest missions, OneWeb has now launched 146 satellites, and SpaceX has sent 1,385 Starlink spacecraft into orbit.

SpaceX and OneWeb are competitors in the market to provide broadband internet services from space. Other companies, such as Amazon and Telesat, are developing their own satellite internet constellations, but neither has started deploying operational spacecraft. So far, SpaceX is closest to entering commercial service, followed by OneWeb.

The commercial ventures are designed to beam internet signals to underserved communities, commercial and military ships and aircraft, and other remote customers.

SpaceX’s early focus has been on the consumer broadband market, but the U.S. military has tested out Starlink services. OneWeb’s has emphasized selling services to governments and companies.

Using its own fleet of reusable Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX has jumped far ahead of OneWeb in launching satellites. But the design of SpaceX’s Starlink network, which flies closer to Earth, requires more satellites to provide global service than OneWeb’s fleet.

The Starlink network could eventually number more than 10,000 satellites, but the first tranche of Starlinks will have 1,584 satellites orbiting 341 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth on paths tilted 53 degrees to the equator. SpaceX plans launch more satellites into polar orbits later this year to expand Starlink coverage globally.

Artist’s illustration of a OneWeb satellite. The core structure measures about a meter, or 3 feet, on each side. Credit: OneWeb

Starlink is already providing interim beta service across high latitude regions, such as the northern United States, Canada, and England. SpaceX announced earlier this month that the Starlink beta service will soon begin reaching customers in Germany, New Zealand, and in other regions of the United Kingdom, including Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and northern England.

OneWeb said it demonstrated its network capabilities to representatives from U.S. Space Command on March 2, with additional broadband demonstrations planned in April for U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command.

The demonstration for the military earlier this month in Melbourne, Florida, used two ground user terminals to provide data rates up to 50 megabits per second with latency level as low as 32 milliseconds, according to OneWeb.

“OneWeb will connect you with fast internet and low latency, whether you are at sea, airborne, or in the middle of nowhere, providing truly global coverage by 2022,” said Maurizio Vanotti, OneWeb’s senior director of infrastructure development.

With 146 satellites now in orbit, OneWeb has launched about one-quarter of its fleet.

The next 36 OneWeb satellites are scheduled to launch April 25 from the Vostochny Cosmodrome on another Soyuz rocket. Those spacecraft will be ready to ship next week from their factory in Florida to the Russian launch base, said Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb’s chief technology officer.

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