On the verge of another Soyuz launch, OneWeb looks to flights on Indian rockets

OneWeb announced Monday it is working on an agreement to launch future broadband internet satellites on Indian rockets, the same day the next batch of 36 OneWeb spacecraft moved into position at a Russian spaceport for liftoff Thursday on a Soyuz launcher.

The London-based company, which builds its satellites in a factory on Florida’s Space Coast, said Monday it has signed a letter of intent with NewSpace India Limited, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization, to use Indian rockets for launches beginning as soon as next year.

OneWeb is owned by a consortium of shareholders led by the Indian telecom company Bharti Global and the UK government.

Arianespace won a contract in 2015 to launch OneWeb’s first-generation network. The deal between Arianespace and OneWeb now covers 19 launches aboard Russian Soyuz rockets from spaceports in Russia, Kazakhstan, and French Guiana.

Ten of those missions are now complete, and the 11th OneWeb launch on a Soyuz rocket is scheduled Thursday at 5:40 a.m. EDT (0940 GMT) from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East. There are 36 OneWeb satellites on-board the Soyuz rocket, which rolled out to its launch pad Monday at Vostochny.

With Thursday’s launch, OneWeb will have shot 358 satellites into orbit since February 2019. Each spacecraft is about the size of a mini-refrigerator.

The remaining Soyuz missions are sufficient to launch OneWeb’s planned network of 648 satellites in polar orbit 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) above Earth to provide low-latency broadband internet services around the world. OneWeb is planning another generation of spacecraft to handle more internet traffic, and that constellation could number thousands of satellites.

Another batch of 36 OneWeb satellites awaits launch Thursday on a Russian Soyuz rocket. The stack of broadband spacecraft is seen in this photo during pre-launch processing at the Vostochny Cosmodrome. Credit: Roscosmos

OneWeb’s new letter of intent with NewSpace India Limited is non-binding. The companies said they will “expeditiously convert” the letter into a binding agreement after obtaining approvals from their corporate boards.

OneWeb and NSIL unveiled the letter of intent in a virtual event to mark the establishment of the Indian Space Association, an industry body with membership held by Indian space and telecom companies.

The letter of intent outlines OneWeb’s interest in launching future satellites on Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle and the heavier Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mk.3 rocket.

We are delighted to have OneWeb looking into how our launch capabilities can help meet their global ambition to connect people everywhere,” said K. Sivan, chairman of ISRO, India’s space agency. “We are making tremendous progress and India is advancing its space capabilities and we look forward to working together.”

“ISRO has built formidable launch capabilities ,and India is part of the select group of countries to have history of successful launches,” said Sunil Bharti Mittal, OneWeb’s chairman and the billionaire founder of Bharti Enterprises, OneWeb’s majority shareholder.

“OneWeb will be delighted to use ISRO’s proven platforms to fulfill its vision of taking broadband connectivity across the Earth, oceans and sky,” Mittal said in a statement.

Mittal added that launching OneWeb satellites on Indian rockets will also boost the “strategic partnership” between the UK and India.

File photo of an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in flight. Credit: ISRO

A Soyuz launch in July gave OneWeb enough spacecraft to provide internet services to customers north of 50 degrees latitude, once the satellites move into their proper orbital planes and complete testing. Two more Soyuz launches in August and September sent 68 additional OneWeb satellites into orbit.

OneWeb’s trajectory has not been smooth. The company filed for bankruptcy in March 2020 after failing to secure enough funding to continue building and launching satellites. The reorganized company emerged from bankruptcy last year under the ownership of Bharti Global and the UK government.

OneWeb announced Aug. 12 a $300 million equity investment from Hanwha, a South Korean tech and manufacturing firm. The funding brings the total equity investment in OneWeb since November 2020 to $2.7 billion, the company said.

Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb, said in August that the company has enough funding to complete its 648-satellite constellation by next year.

The OneWeb spacecraft are built by OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus, in a factory just outside the gate of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The satellites, each fitted with a xenon-fueled ion thruster, 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.

OneWeb said Monday that it is on track to start internet services to Alaska, Canada, and the UK by the end of this year. Services to the rest of the world will begin by late 2022, the company said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.