British firm OneWeb will launch another 36 broadband satellites

British firm OneWeb will launch another 36 broadband satellites atop a Soyuz rocket today as it pushes ahead with plans to take on SpaceX’s Starlink network after bankruptcy setback

  • The launch from Russia will bring the OneWeb constellation up to 110 satellites
  • OneWeb is jointly owned by the UK Government and Indian firm Bharti Global
  • The launch is being operated by France-based Arianespace on a Soyuz rocket
  • It is expected to launch at 12:25 GMT from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia 

British firm OneWeb is launching the first batch of broadband satellites into orbit since surviving bankruptcy in a bid to take on SpaceX’s Starlink network.

Now jointly owned by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the UK government, OneWeb will launch 36 satellites at 12:26 GMT from Russia on a Soyuz rocket. 

The firm has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to compete with Starlink, as the latest batch brings it up to 110 satellites in orbit compared to 800 from SpaceX. 

The launch will be from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia where an Arianespace Soyuz rocket will place the satellites in a near-polar orbit above the Earth. 

This will be OneWeb’s third launch in 2020 and the first since surviving bankruptcy and its acquisition by the UK government and Bharti Global.

OneWeb says it hopes to be able to provide satellite broadband to the UK by the end of next year and worldwide by 2022 when it has 650 satellites in orbit. 

The firm has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to compete with Starlink, as the latest batch brings it up to 110 satellites in orbit compared to 800 from SpaceX. 

A Russian-built Soyuz 2.1b rocket and Fregat upper stage will carry the satellites to a near-polar orbit from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast at 12:26 GMT.

The satellites are built by a subsidiary company called OneWeb Satellites based in Florida – it is a partnership with AirBus. 

They each weigh 325 lbs and are about the size of a dishwasher. They will use ion thrusters to raise their altitude to 745 miles above the Earth after launch.

A number of Soyuz launched have been purchased from Arianespace – a French company – to send the satellites into orbit between now and 2022. 

The satellites are built by a subsidiary company called OneWeb Satellites based in Florida – it is a partnership with AirBus 

OneWeb says it is hiring new staff at a rapid pace, restarting launches, continuing to build its ground station network and pushing ahead with development of its user access terminal ahead of planned operations in 2021.

The first services will be available to customers in the UK, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland and Canada in 2021 and worldwide in 2022.

To achieve that goal they will have to compete a number of launches in the next two years, as the full service requires 648 satellites in orbit – they currently have 110. 

The aim is similar to Starlink, to deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband, particularly to areas currently not services well by fixed line connections.

Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said while the internet has powered the world through the coronavirus pandemic, the web is not world wide with over three billion without even basic internet access.

‘Megaconstellations of dishwasher-sized satellites can change that by connecting the unconnected, not just in the UK but across the world,’ he added. 

This is the first commercial mission from Vostochny Cosmodrome performed by Arianespace and its Starsem affiliate, putting the satellites into a near-polar orbit. 

This use of Russian launch facilities and a France-based company for launch operations led to one British space-CEO calling for more investment in UK Space.

The UK has a ‘significant equity stake’ in OneWeb, said to be £400 million. 

A Russian-built Soyuz 2.1b rocket and Fregat upper stage will carry the satellites to a near-polar orbit from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Amur Oblast at 12:25 GMT 

Volodymyr Levykin, CEO at Skyrora, the only firm currently capable of launching satellites into orbit from British soil, called on the UK Government to invest a similar amount of money in launch infrastructure on British soil.  

Levykin says the UK has a heritage of launch capabilities going back to the Black Arrow satellite carriers of the 1960s and a number of private UK firms are carrying that torch on into the 21st century.

‘There is a huge opportunity for the Government to encourage and foster these companies, by investing similar sums to what it spent acquiring its stake in OneWeb in order to develop infrastructure to launch from UK soil,’ he said.

‘Skyrora is the only private company launching from UK soil, and in the future we would hope the Government backs UK-led infrastructure, such as the Skyrora XL rocket.’    

Rocket firm Skyrora – hoping to launch satellites from the UK next year – says the Government should invest more in British launch infrastructure 

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said in November that buying a stake in OneWeb was a strategic investment that demonstrated the Government’s commitment to the UK space sector. 

‘Access to our own global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect people worldwide, providing fast UK-backed broadband from the Shetlands to the Sahara and from Pole to Pole,’ he said.   

OneWeb has a deal with Arianespace for 19 Soyuz launches – operating from Vostochny, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana – finishing the 650 strong satellite constellation.

‘OneWeb will continue to be headquartered in the UK, bringing new R&D programs, manufacturing opportunities and a global platform with priority spectrum usage rights,’ OneWeb said in a statement.  

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