Arianespace launches 36 more OneWeb satellites

TAMPA, Fla. — Arianespace successfully launched another 36 satellites for low Earth orbit broadband operator OneWeb March 25, bringing its total in-orbit constellation to 146 satellites.

OneWeb has made contact with each satellite after they separated from a Soyuz-2.1b rocket that blasted off 10:47 p.m. Eastern from Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s newest launch base.

It took nearly four hours to dispense the satellites in nine batches from the rocket’s Fregat upper stage.

The mission marks the second launch for OneWeb under its new owners, the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global, which bought the venture out of bankruptcy Nov. 20.

It is also the second of five launches OneWeb plans by June to cover north of 50 degrees latitude. That coverage area would span the entire United Kingdom — as well as Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada.

Chris McLaughlin, OneWeb’s chief of government, regulation and engagement, said the goal is the first bench mark it set with its new shareholders.

“With a prime shareholder in [the British government] this pathway through to approximately June is of particular emotive importance,” McLaughlin told SpaceNews in an interview.

Although commercial service won’t start until late 2021, he said reaching the June launch milestone is important for underlining the rationale behind the acquisition and its value to the British public.

Space is one of the sectors the U.K. has singled out to expand its domestic industrial capabilities following Brexit. McLaughlin said OneWeb will also boost the country’s standing among Five Eyes nations, a multilateral intelligence alliance that includes the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

In a published statement after OneWeb’s March 25 launch, U.K. Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “This latest launch is yet another boost for OneWeb and their ambitious plans to connect people and businesses across the globe to fast and reliable broadband. 

“Our support for OneWeb puts the UK at the forefront of the latest advances in space technology and demonstrates our commitment to grow Britain’s competitive advantage in this field.”

Scaling up

OneWeb is planning a 648-strong constellation, aiming to offer global high-speed, low-latency connectivity services in 2022.

The plan to launch three more batches of satellites before the end of June could be disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which McLaughlin said continues to play havoc with supply chains.

“We believe we’re in good shape, but everyone across the industry is trying to balance the challenges of working as we do at the moment, and the ways in which equipment has to arrive on time and be built in, etc.,” he added.

“But we do have the advantage of … our own dedicated factory in Florida.”

OneWeb Satellites, OneWeb’s joint venture with European aerospace giant Airbus, is building the satellites in the U.S. facility. 

Building spacecraft in-house has limited pandemic disruption for U.S.-based rival LEO broadband network Starlink, which has been busy launching through owner SpaceX to amass a constellation of more than 1,300 satellites.

Starlink is reportedly in talks with the U.K. government about providing connectivity in areas that are hard to reach with terrestrial solutions.

The talks come amid a £5 billion ($6.85 billion) “Project Gigabit” government infrastructure program to improve broadband coverage in the country, reported Sky News.

However, McLaughlin said this funding has already gone to U.K. telecom companies, adding that OneWeb has also had numerous conversations with government officials. 

“OneWeb’s differentiator is that we are not seeking to sell individual dishes to individual people around the globe to disintermediate telecom companies,” he said.

“We are seeking to partner with those telecom companies to serve their customers and serve their networks, and provide capacity that enables them to best decide how to deploy.”

OneWeb raised $400 million by selling equity Jan. 15, bringing the LEO broadband provider’s total funding to $1.4 billion.

SoftBank, which was OneWeb’s largest shareholder before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2020, provided $350 million. The remaining $50 million came from Hughes Network Systems, which is also a returning shareholder.

McLaughlin said OneWeb is “extremely confident” of securing about $800 million in extra funding over this year to reach its funding goal of around $2 billion.

Gaining momentum

South Korean terminal maker Intellian is on track to deliver OneWeb’s first dual parabolic dishes in May, McLaughlin said, while a single parabolic antenna solution remains under development. These are large products, designed for applications including connecting whole villages and government sites.

More compact antennas are on the way, and McLaughlin hinted OneWeb would soon make announcements about them. The operator announced March 19 an agreement with Israel antenna maker SatixFy to develop a terminal that would fit on aircraft.

Intellian initially partnered with OneWeb in 2019 to build terminals, but OneWeb’s collapse into bankruptcy just as COVID-19 tightened its grip on industry disrupted the work.

“We shall not put too fine a point on it, we were delayed nine to 10 months,” McLaughlin said.

He added: “The terminal momentum is building back, the customer momentum is building back, but obviously you expect a degree of hesitancy after what happened last year.”