Launching through heavy rainfall, a Soyuz booster vaulted away from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Russia to place 36 more OneWeb internet satellites into orbit Friday, giving the London-based company a fleet of 218 spacecraft, one-third of its planned constellation.
The 218-satellite constellation is also enough to make OneWeb owner of the second-largest fleet of active satellites in Earth orbit. OneWeb has more satellites than Planet’s fleet of Earth-imaging spacecraft, but is well shy of the more than 1,600 SpaceX-built Starlink internet satellites now in orbit.
The latest 36 OneWeb satellites, each about the size of a mini-refrigerator, lifted off on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East at 1:38:39 p.m. EDT (1738:39 GMT) Friday, or 2:38 a.m. local time Saturday at Vostochny. The mission was delayed a day to allow Russian technicians to replace an inertial measurement unit, part of the guidance and navigation system on the Soyuz rocket.
Heading north with more than 900,000 pounds of thrust, the Soyuz rocket disappeared through a deck of low clouds and climbed through the stratosphere before shutting down and releasing its four kerosene-fueled first stage boosters two minutes after liftoff.
A core stage, or second stage, engine continued firing as the rocket continued north, shedding its no-longer-needed payload fairing about three-and-a-half minutes into the flight.
The rocket’s second stage separated and the third stage ignited nearly five minutes after liftoff. It fired its RD-0124 engine more than four minutes before deploying a Fregat upper stage to complete the maneuvers necessary to inject the 36 OneWeb satellites into orbit.
The Fregat ignited its main engine to place the satellites into a parking orbit, then reignited its engine to reach a targeted 279-mile-high (450-kilometer) polar orbit for deployment of the 36 OneWeb payloads.
The 325-pound (147.5-kilogram) satellites separated four at a time from a dispenser on the Fregat upper stage. The dispenser, made in Sweden by RUAG Space, carried the 36 OneWeb satellites through the launch sequence.
OneWeb and Arianespace, the Soyuz launch provider, confirmed the successful deployment of all 36 satellites around four hours after liftoff. OneWeb said its ground controllers established contact with all of the spacecraft, confirming their health after the successful launch.
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 Soyuz rocket’s four liquid-fueled first stage boosters have shut down and jettisoned as the vehicle heads north from Vostochny with 36 OneWeb satellites.https://t.co/zZ4kE96H8O pic.twitter.com/yVu9LN7a6o
— Spaceflight Now (@SpaceflightNow) May 28, 2021
The launch Friday was the fourth 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 two more Soyuz flights March 25 and April 25.
The next OneWeb launch is tentatively scheduled for July 1 from Vostochny.
Four Soyuz launches for OneWeb are scheduled from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan later this year — two in August, one in September, and one in December. Each mission will deploy more than 30 OneWeb satellites.
“Today’s successful launch is another execution milestone that puts us one launch away from delivering high speed, low latency connectivity to Alaska, Canada, Greenland, UK, and Northern Europe,” said Neil Masterson, OneWeb’s CEO.
OneWeb’s spacecraft are built in a factory just outside the gates of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A company named OneWeb Satellites — a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus — manufactures the spacecraft on an assembly line.
“With more than 200 satellites built in our factory, we are extremely proud of our team’s high-quality and fast production of satellites,” said James Hinds, CEO of OneWeb Satellites. “Supporting OneWeb’s mission and constellation deployment is creating hundreds of highly skilled manufacturing and engineering jobs in the Space Coast, and we are excited to be a part of the progress made today, bringing us all one step closer to delivering global connectivity.”
The satellites beam broadband internet signals to users on the ground, at sea, or in the air, providing high-speed, low-latency connectivity for consumers, large companies, and governments. OneWeb is competing with SpaceX’s Starlink network, along with planned internet constellations from other companies.
SpaceX’s Starlink network and OneWeb’s internet system are the first two “mega-constellations” to become reality.
The Starlink network may eventually number 12,000 or more satellites, based on SpaceX’s filings with the Federal Communications Commission. SpaceX, which builds its spacecraft in Redmond, Washington, has launched all of its operation Starlink satellites from Florida’s Space Coast, and plans to begin launching Starlink satellites from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California later this year.
OneWeb, partially owned by the British government, is planning an initial fleet of 648 satellites, but could add more spacecraft if business opportunities grow. Other companies, such as Amazon and Telesat, are planning their own constellations with hundreds or thousands of small satellites to beam broadband internet service around the world. And there are firms in China eyeing the same capability.
OneWeb says it plans to complete its 648-satellite network by mid-2022, but the initial block of spacecraft already in orbit, plus the 36 more due to lift off July 1, will be ready to provide internet services to regions north of 50 degrees latitude by the end of 2021.
The company said it intends to make global internet services available in 2022.
Email the author.
Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.