OneWeb adds 36 more satellites to internet network

A Soyuz rocket lifted off Sunday from Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East with 36 internet satellites built on Florida’s Space Coast for OneWeb, bringing the company’s fleet to 182 spacecraft, more than a quarter of the way to building out a constellation of nearly 650 orbiting relay nodes.

The 151-foot-tall (46-meter) Soyuz rocket climbed off its launch pad at Vostochny, Russia’s newest spaceport, with nearly million pounds of thrust. Arcing toward the north, the Soyuz-2.1b rocket dropped its four first stage boosters about two minutes after liftoff.

Live views from rocket-mounted cameras showed the boosters peeling away from the Soyuz core stage, followed moments later by separation of the payload shroud that protected the 36 OneWeb satellites during the initial ascent through the atmosphere.

Nearly five minutes into the mission, the Soyuz core stage shut down and jettisoned as the rocket’s third stage engine ignited. A Fregat upper stage separated and ignited about 10 minutes after liftoff to place the 36 OneWeb satellites into a preliminary transfer orbit. A second Fregat main engine burn an hour later injected the satellites into a targeted 279-mile-high (450-kilometer) orbit.

The satellites deployed from a dispenser four at a time, with the Fregat’s control thrusters firing between each separation to ensure proper spacing between the spacecraft. The Fregat upper stage released the final satellite quartet nearly four hours after launch.

Arianespace, which provides launch services for OneWeb, confirmed the successful separation of all 36 satellites from the Fregat stage.

“Congratulations to all the teams who made this latest mission from the Vostochny Cosmodrome a success,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace. “This launch again confirms Arianespace’s ability to deploy the OneWeb constellation through the use of three different Soyuz launch sites — in French Guiana, Kazakhstan and Russia.”

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifts off with 36 OneWeb satellites. Credit: Roscosmos

In a post-launch statement, OneWeb said its ground team acquired signals from all the satellites, confirming the spacecraft were alive and functioning after deployment in orbit.

Each spacecraft will deploy power-generating solar panels and switch on xenon-fueled plasma thrusters to reach an operational altitude of 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) in the coming months. The 36 satellites — each about the size of a mini-fridge — were built in Florida near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus.

With Sunday’s launch, OneWeb’s fleet has 182 spacecraft of a planned constellation of 648 satellites relaying broadband internet signals around the world.

London-based OneWeb said the launch Sunday is the third of a set of five Soyuz missions that will enable the network to provide initial connectivity to users north of 50 degrees latitude. The five launches began in December — after OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy proceedings last year — followed by another Soyuz flight March 25. The next two OneWeb launches after Sunday are tentatively scheduled for May 27 and July 1 from Vostochny, according to Russian media reports.

“OneWeb’s ‘Five to 50’ programme aims to connect broadband data users in the northern hemisphere, with services covering the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada,” OneWeb said in a statement. “Service will be ready to start by the end of year, with global service available in 2022.”

Four Soyuz launches for OneWeb are scheduled from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan later this year, each carrying more than 30 satellites.

The rapid-fire launch schedule follows the first three Soyuz/OneWeb launches in February 2019, February 2020, and March 2020. The launch Sunday was sixth of 19 dedicated Soyuz missions to build out OneWeb’s fleet.

“I want to sincerely thank OneWeb for its trust,” Israël said. “I am delighted that our company has contributed — for the sixth time — to this client’s ultimate ambition of providing Internet access to everyone, anywhere, at any time.”

Artist’s concept of a OneWeb satellite. Credit: OneWeb

OneWeb filed for bankruptcy last year after running into fundraising trouble. 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.

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

The busy string of launches planned by OneWeb is outpaced by only SpaceX, which is deploying a network of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global internet services. 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, and the company said it recently also demonstrated its internet connectivity to the U.S. military.

Using its own fleet of reusable Falcon 9 boosters, SpaceX has jumped far ahead of OneWeb in launching satellites. SpaceX has put up 1,445 Starlink satellites to date, including prototypes and failed spacecraft. The company says it has more than 1,300 active satellites in its constellation.

The design of SpaceX’s Starlink network, which flies closer to Earth, requires more satellites to provide global service than OneWeb’s fleet. SpaceX says placing its satellites at lower altitudes reduces the risk of the spacecraft becoming a long-term source of space junk.

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