January 31, 2023

SpaceX delivers for rival OneWeb with sunset launch from Kennedy Space Center

EDITOR’S NOTE: Watch a replay of our live coverage of the launch here.

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Forty more OneWeb internet satellites rocketed into orbit from Kennedy Space Center at sunset Thursday, the company’s first launch with SpaceX after suspending flights on Russian rockets earlier this year.

Following a spectacular sunset blastoff at 5:27 p.m. EST (2227 GMT) Thursday, the Falcon 9’s upper stage headed into a roughly 373-mile-high (600-kilometer) polar orbit to deploy the 40 OneWeb satellites, while the first stage booster returned to Cape Canaveral for landing.

The launch was delayed from earlier in the week as SpaceX prepared the Falcon 9 launcher inside a hangar a quarter-mile south of pad 39A.

The 40 satellites on-board the Falcon 9 rocket brought the total number of OneWeb spacecraft launched to 504. OneWeb needs 588 operational satellites to complete its first-generation broadband network, or a total of nearly 650 spacecraft when counting spares.

Adding more relay stations to the constellation extends the network’s reach. OneWeb already provides internet services to communities in Alaska, Canada, and and Northern Europe where terrestrial fiber connectivity is unavailable. The 40 satellites launched Thursday will put Southern Europe, the United States, North Africa, the Middle East, Japan, and parts of Australia and India within OneWeb’s reach.

“This launch is very, very important for us because it’s going to allow us to increase significantly the coverage of our service,” said Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb’s chief technology officer. “With this launch, we’ll be able to cover up to 25 degrees north and south (latitude). This means the entire United States, and half of Australia down, and (much of) South America.”

In a pre-launch interview with Spaceflight Now, Ladovaz said the OneWeb satellites already in orbit are performing well. OneWeb’s satellites are built in a factory just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus Defense and Space. The satellites are designed to beam low-latency broadband internet signals to customers around the world.

“Our failure rate is very, very, very low,” Ladovaz said. “I think it’s probably less than 1%, and we want to keep it that way, even lower than that. The satellites have had very few issues.”

Forty OneWeb satellites mounted on a dispenser before encapsulation inside a SpaceX payload fairing. Credit: OneWeb

Based in London, OneWeb is one of several operators either already launching large fleets of internet satellites, or planning to begin launches soon.

SpaceX has launched more than 3,500 Starlink internet satellites using the company’s own Falcon 9 rockets. The 504 OneWeb satellites now in orbit launched on 13 Russian Soyuz rockets purchased through Arianespace, the French launch services provider, and one flight each on a SpaceX Falcon 9 and an Indian GLSV Mk.3 rocket.

Amazon plans to launch its first two prototype internet satellites of a planned constellation of 3,236 spacecraft next year on the first flight of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.

But OneWeb’s satellite deployment schedule hit a roadblock earlier this year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Arianespace was on the hook with OneWeb for six more Soyuz launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, including a 14th launch that was set to take off in March. But Russia’s space agency set conditions on the mission after rolling the rocket and the OneWeb satellites to a launch pad at Baikonur, including a demand that the UK government give up its stake in OneWeb.

The UK government declined, and OneWeb announced March 3 it was suspending launches from Baikonur. OneWeb reported a loss of $229.2 million on its financial statements as a result of the termination of the planned Soyuz launch in March. The financial charge also covers losses associated with the postponement of subsequent Soyuz missions, and the loss of 36 satellites stranded in Kazakhstan and not returned to OneWeb by Russia, which runs the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

Less than a month after Soyuz launches were suspended, OneWeb announced an agreement with SpaceX to launch some of its remaining satellites. OneWeb finalized a similar agreement with New Space India Limited, or NSIL, the commercial arm of India’s space agency, for launches on Indian rockets.

“Unfortunately, all those delays we had with the Ukraine crisis slowed us down,” Ladovaz said. “That’s why I’m so excited about this launch today.”

The contract with SpaceX was surprising to many satellite industry watchers because OneWeb is an indirect competitor in the broadband market. SpaceX sells Starlink service directly to consumers, while OneWeb sells to enterprises, internet service providers, maritime companies, and airlines to provide connectivity for entire businesses or communities.

Ladovaz lauded SpaceX for their responsiveness to OneWeb’s needs, saying there has been “absolutely no friction” between the companies. “We are not competing in the same markets. This is about, really, cooperation.”

Ladovaz said OneWeb has added one more launch with SpaceX on top of the three missions announced earlier this year. The extra launch will be a rideshare mission with Iridium, Ladovaz said Thursday. Iridium previously announced it will launch five of its spare voice and data relay satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket in 2023 from California, but did not disclose any co-passengers.

“Honestly, it’s incredible what SpaceX can achieve in such a short amount of time,” he said. “It’s in another dimension compared to other launch vehicle providers.”

After Thursday’s mission, OneWeb has four launches remaining to finish deploying its first-generation broadband constellation. Three of them are booked on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, including the newly-announced rideshare mission. OneWeb has one more launch reserved with NSIL for another GSLV Mk.3 launch next year.

OneWeb has manufactured additional satellites as spares to replace the spacecraft impounded by Russia at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Ladovaz said.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket climbs into the sky over Florida’s Space Coast on Thursday with 40 OneWeb internet satellites. Credit: Stephen Clark / Spaceflight Now

In one example of SpaceX’s rapid pace of development, the launch provider designed and built a new dispenser to accommodate OneWeb’s satellites inside the Falcon 9’s payload fairing. For its past missions, OneWeb used a carbon composite mounting tower built in Sweden by Beyond Gravity, formerly known as RUAG Space, with a capacity to hold up to 36 satellites.

SpaceX developed a multi-tier metallic dispenser capable of accommodating up to 40 satellites. OneWeb’s satellites separated from their rocket in groups of four over the house of nearly four hours on the previous launches, while SpaceX released OneWeb’s spacecraft over a shorter timespan.

“It’s actually a completely different design … It’s incredible,” Ladovaz said. “If you think about it, designing from scratch a dispenser in two months, when SpaceX came back to us and proposed that idea, to be honest with you, we were a little bit concerned. But they explained that to us, and we accepted it and moved along with the idea.”

Launching with SpaceX offers an extra benefit for OneWeb, which can deliver its satellites to the rocket integration hangar just a few miles away from their factory, instead of flying satellites to far-flung launch sites in Kazakhstan, Russia, French Guiana, or India.

“It’s so much easier,” Ladovaz said. “You can start shipping one satellite at a time instead of waiting to have all the satellites ready in one shot. You can integrate day by day.”

And OneWeb’s satellite builders in Florida will finally be able to see one of their launches in person.

During Thursday’s countdown, SpaceX’s launch team turned over control of the Falcon 9 countdown to an automated computer sequencer 35 minutes before liftoff. About a million pounds of super-chilled, densified kerosene and liquid oxygen were pumped into the 229-foot-tall (70-meter) rocket ahead of the 5:27 p.m. launch time.

After teams verified technical and weather parameters were all “green” for launch, the nine Merlin 1D main engines on the first stage booster flashed to life with the help of an ignition fluid called triethylaluminum/triethylborane, or TEA-TEB. Once the engines ramped up to full throttle, hydraulic clamps opened to release the Falcon 9 for its climb into space.

The nine main engines produced 1.7 million pounds of thrust for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, propelling the Falcon 9 and the OneWeb satellites into the upper atmosphere as it headsd south-southeast from Kennedy Space Center. Then the booster stage shut down and separated rom the Falcon 9’s upper stage to begin maneuvers to return it to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

While the upper stage lit its single engine to accelerate to orbital velocity, the first stage reignited three of its engines for a “boost back” burn begin thrusting it back toward Florida’s coast. The booster, designated B1069 in SpaceX’s fleet of reusable rockets, performed two more retrorocket firings with a subset of its engines to slow for landing. Touchdown at Landing Zone 1 occurred nearly after launch to wrap up the booster’s fourth flight to space. The rocket landing was accompanied by double sonic booms heard across Florida’s Space Coast.

A SpaceX recovery ship was on station off the northern coast of Cuba to recover the Falcon 9 rocket’s payload fairing after the nose cone’s two clamshell halves parachuted into the sea downrange from Cape Canaveral. The payload fairing jettisoned from the rocket about three-and-a-half minutes into the flight, shortly after ignition of the Falcon 9’s upper stage engine.

After turning from an initial south-southeast course to a more southerly trajectory, the upper stage completed its first burn eight-and-a-half minutes into the flight to place the OneWeb satellites into a preliminary parking orbit. The Falcon 9 used a southern launch corridor parallel to Florida’s East Coast to reach the north-south polar orbit required for OneWeb’s constellation.

SpaceX launched its first polar orbit mission from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in 2020, using the southern launch corridor for the first time since 1969. The OneWeb mission Thursday was SpaceX’s eighth polar orbit launch from Florida, and the first to take off from pad 39A, the historic seaside facility originally used for Saturn 5 rocket launches in the Apollo moon program.

The Falcon 9’s upper stage coasted over the Caribbean Sea, South America, and the Pacific Ocean before a three-second restart of the Merlin Vacuum engine about 55 minutes after launch to circularize the orbit before deployment of the 40 OneWeb satellites.

The satellites separated in groups over a half-hour, with the final set of spacecraft deploying from the rocket about 1 hour and 29 minutes into the missions. OneWeb confirmed ground teams established communications with all 40 new satellites late Thursday.

The OneWeb satellites, each weighing about 325 pounds (147.5 kilograms at launch), will deploy solar panels and activate xenon ion thrusters to maneuver from their post-launch deployment altitude of some 373 miles into their operational orbit at 745 miles (1,200 kilometers).

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1069.4)

PAYLOAD: OneWeb 15 (40 OneWeb satellites)

LAUNCH SITE: LC-39A, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Dec. 8, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 5:27:48 p.m. EST (2227:48 GMT)

WEATHER FORECAST: 90% probability of acceptable weather

BOOSTER RECOVERY: Landing Zone 1, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: South

TARGET ORBIT: 373 miles (600 kilometers) altitude; 87 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

    • T+00:00: Liftoff
    • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
    • T+02:17: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
    • T+02:20: Stage separation
    • T+02:28: Second stage engine ignition
    • T+02:34: First stage boost back burn ignition
    • T+03:22: First stage boost back burn cutoff
    • T+03:33: Fairing jettison
    • T+06:04: First stage entry burn ignition
    • T+06:21: First stage entry burn cutoff
    • T+07:18: First stage landing burn ignition
    • T+07:45: First stage landing
    • T+08:31: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
    • T+55:14: Second stage engine restart (SES 2)
    • T+55:17: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
    • T+58:28: Separation of 14 OneWeb satellites
    • T+01:13:53: Separation of 13 OneWeb satellites
    • T+01:29:18: Separation of 13 OneWeb satellites

MISSION STATS:

  • 188th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 197th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 4th launch of Falcon 9 booster B1069
  • 161st Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 58th SpaceX launch from pad 39A
  • 152nd launch overall from pad 39A
  • 128th flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 1st SpaceX launch for OneWeb
  • 54th Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 55th launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 53rd orbital launch attempt based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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