OneWeb said Monday that it has reached an agreement with SpaceX to resume launching the company’s satellite internet constellation later this year, just 18 days after suspending launches on Russian Soyuz rockets.
Few details about the deal were released Monday morning. “The terms of the agreement with SpaceX are confidential,” OneWeb said in a statement.
OneWeb said the “first launch” with SpaceX is expected before the end of this year, suggesting the company anticipates multiple flights on SpaceX rockets.
The company has launched 428 of its planned 648 first-generation broadband satellites on 13 Soyuz rockets, accounting for two-thirds of its fleet. The missions were booked with Arianespace, the French launch service provider with Soyuz commercial launch management and marketing rights.
Arianespace was on the lookout for another six Soyuz launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
OneWeb had aimed to launch its 14th mission with 36 more satellites on March 4 on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur, but the Russian space agency, led by Dmitry Rogozin, set the conditions for the mission after bringing the rocket to its landing pad. release on March 2.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions, Rogozin demanded that OneWeb promise that the services provided by Internet satellites would not be used for military purposes and that the UK government relinquish its stake in OneWeb. The UK government refused, and OneWeb announced on March 3 that it would suspend launches from Baikonur.
That left OneWeb in the lurch, with 220 more satellites built or under construction at the company’s factory near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Now those satellites won’t need to be shipped to another continent for launch.
“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision of the limitless potential of space,” said Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb. “With these launch plans in place, we are well on our way to finishing building our full fleet of satellites and delivering robust, fast and secure connectivity around the world.”
OneWeb did not disclose the number of launches it has booked with SpaceX, or how many OneWeb satellites will fly on each mission. OneWeb’s missions with SpaceX will presumably launch on Falcon 9 rockets, but OneWeb did not specify the launch vehicle configuration.
Soyuz rockets typically launched 34 to 36 satellites on each OneWeb mission.
Each OneWeb satellite weighs about 324 pounds (147 kilograms), about half the launch mass of a SpaceX Starlink satellite. SpaceX normally launches about 50 Starlink satellites on each dedicated flight aboard Falcon 9 rockets.
SpaceX could, in theory, launch many more than 36 OneWeb satellites in a single mission. But the OneWeb satellite deployment dispensers made by RUAG Space are already designed and built, and could be reused for SpaceX missions. Dispensers can accommodate a maximum of 36 spaceships.
The current generation of Starlink satellites, expected to eventually number around 4,400 spacecraft, fly in five orbital “layers” approximately 335 to 350 miles (540 to 550 kilometers) above Earth, with satellites positioned at different orbital inclinations. , or angles, with respect to the equator. . Until now, SpaceX has focused on launching Starlink satellites into medium-inclination orbits about 53 degrees from the equator.
OneWeb satellites fly in polar orbit at a higher altitude, approximately 745 miles (1,200 kilometers). OneWeb’s network architecture requires fewer satellites than SpaceX’s Starlink fleet. Both companies are considering second-generation satellites to add to their constellations.
SpaceX can launch satellites into polar orbit from Cape Canaveral or Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. OneWeb did not identify a launch site for its missions with SpaceX.
After emerging from bankruptcy proceedings in late 2020, OneWeb became owned by the UK government and Bharti Global, an Indian telecommunications company. Additional fundraising has added other major investors in OneWeb, including Japan’s SoftBank, French satellite communications company Eutelsat, US-based Hughes and South Korean business conglomerate Hanwha.
London-based OneWeb says it has activated internet service for customers above 50 degrees north latitude. Partial coverage was enabled last year, but the company needs its entire fleet to start global service.
The satellite Internet network aims to reach remote communities, aircraft, ships, and military users.
OneWeb’s move to SpaceX from Russia’s Soyuz is a shakeup for the commercial space industry. When Arianespace signed its launch contract with OneWeb in 2015, it was the largest commercial launch deal in history, with a financial value of more than $1 billion.
SpaceX is building its own satellite Internet constellation, called Starlink. OneWeb and Starlink target different segments of the telecommunications market, but their networks are similar, and the only two Internet “mega-constellations” are well advanced in implementation.
OneWeb considered American, European, Indian and Japanese rockets to fill the gap created by the Soyuz rocket embargo. Analysts said SpaceX, with its already high flight rate and inventory of reusable boosters, is probably OneWeb’s best bet to get the rest of its satellites up and running quickly.
“I still think SpaceX is the fastest route to completing OneWeb’s Gen 1 constellation, but … they have their own pressing launch demands with customers,” Caleb Henry, senior industry analyst at Quilty Analytics, said in a statement. interview earlier this month. “The difference for SpaceX is that they have a backlog and storage of their flown boosters, so they don’t have to ramp up production to support OneWeb.”
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