A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 40 OneWeb broadband relay satellites into orbit on Thursday, helping the London-based company expand its fleet following the invasion of ukraineWestern sanctions and Russia’s subsequent cancellation of previously planned Soyuz launches.
Roaring at 5:27 p.m. EST, Falcon 9 sped away south from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, boosting the OneWeb satellites into an initial polar orbit. The 325-pound relay stations were deployed in three batches starting about an hour after liftoff.
The Falcon 9 first stage, meanwhile, completed its fourth flight with a double sonic boom and a perfect return landing on a concrete slab at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force 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-based rocket builder, saying that the two companies target different segments of the data communications market.
“It’s amazing what SpaceX can accomplish in such a short time,” he told Spaceflight Now. “Launch managers are really focused on getting the job done. We have a really good relationship with SpaceX in general. We’re not competing in the same markets, it’s really about cooperation.”
While SpaceX launches thousands of Starlink internet satellites, OneWeb plans a fleet of “just” 648 higher-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 Falcon 9 and one atop an Indian GSLV Mark 3 rocket.
Launching into an initial 373-mile-high orbit inclined at 87 degrees to the equator, the 40 satellites launched Thursday will use onboard xenon-ion thrusters to reach their operational altitude of about 745 miles.
OneWeb already provided services to government agencies, businesses, and Internet service providers in Alaska, Canada, and northern Europe. Thursday’s flight was “very, very important to us because it’s going to allow us to significantly increase our service coverage,” Ladovaz said.
“Basically with this launch we will be able to cover … the whole of the United States and up (north) and half of Australia down and South America.”
This has not been 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 retaliation, Russia demanded that OneWeb cut its ties with the British government, which partly owns the company.
OneWeb declined, and Russia confiscated the satellites awaiting launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb then rushed to build replacements and booked its next flight on an Indian GSLV which flew successfully in October. SpaceX’s launch on Thursday was the second since OneWeb and Russia parted ways.
A Bright Side of the Launch Redesign: The Team That Builds OneWeb Satellites in a small factory just outside Kennedy Space Center didn’t have to watch Thursday’s flight on the internet. For the first time, they could watch their satellites fly in person.
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