SpaceX launches 40 OneWeb internet satellites after Russian launches cancelled

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket propelled 40 OneWeb large-scale relay satellites into orbit Thursday, helping the London-based company expand its fleet in the wake of the Russia war. Ukraine invasionand Western sanctions and Russia’s subsequent cancellation of the previously planned Soyuz launch.

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Falcon 9 blasted off far to the south of Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center at 5:27 p.m. EDT, propelling the OneWeb satellite into a preliminary polar orbit. The 325-pound relay stations deployed in three waves starting one hour after liftoff.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center carrying 40 Internet satellites from OneWeb. SpaceX and OneWeb both deploy broadband relay satellites, but the companies are targeting different segments of the communications market with the former Starlink selling directly to consumers while the latter focusing on government agencies and businesses.

William Harwood/CBS News


Meanwhile, the Falcon 9 first stage completed its fourth flight with a double sonic boom and picture-perfect return to land on a concrete pad at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Station. It was the company’s 55th launch so far this year, its 188th Falcon 9 flight overall, and its 154th successful booster recovery.

While SpaceX’s fast-growing Starlink system also provides space-based broadband internet services, Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb’s chief technology officer, had nothing but praise for the California rocket maker, saying the two companies are targeting different segments of the data communications market.

“It’s incredible what SpaceX can achieve in such a short time,” he told Spaceflight Now. “The launch people are really focused on getting the job done. We have very good relationships with SpaceX in general. We don’t compete in the same markets, this is really about collaboration.”

While SpaceX launches thousands of Starlink internet satellites, OneWeb plans to build a fleet of “only” 648 high-altitude relay stations. With Thursday’s launch, the constellation has grown to 504 satellites, with four more launches planned to complete the fleet – three aboard the Falcon 9 and one atop India’s GSLV Mark 3 rocket.

Launched Thursday, the 40 satellites will be put into an initial orbit 373 miles high and inclined 87 degrees to the equator, and will use onboard xenon ion engines to reach its operating altitude of about 745 miles.

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Dramatic long-range tracking camera view of the Falcon 9 second stage heading into orbit (lower center) with the power of its single engine as the first stage restarts three engines (upper center) to reverse course and begin its return for landing at Cape Canaveral Space Station.

SpaceX


OneWeb was already providing service to government agencies, businesses, and ISPs in Alaska, Canada, and Northern Europe. Ladovaz said Thursday’s flight was “very important for us because it will allow us to significantly increase our service coverage.”

“Basically, with this launch, we’ll be able to cover… the entire United States and above (north) and half of Australia below and South America.”

It wasn’t easy.

Last March, OneWeb was preparing to launch 36 satellites aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket when the invasion of Ukraine triggered harsh Western sanctions. In response, Russia demanded that OneWeb sever ties with the British government, which is the company’s part-owner.

OneWeb refused, and Russia confiscated the satellites Awaiting launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb then quickly built replacements and booked its next flight on an Indian GSLV which successfully flew in October. SpaceX’s launch Thursday was the second since OneWeb and Russia parted ways.

One of the silver linings of the random launch: the team that builds the OneWeb satellites in a small factory Outside of the Kennedy Space Center, Thursday’s flight didn’t have to be watched online. For the first time, they can watch their satellites fly by in person.

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