On Thursday, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched 40 broadband OneWeb satellites into orbit, helping the London-based company expand its fleet in Russia’s wakeWestern sanctions and Russia’s subsequent cancellation of previously planned Soyuz launches.
Roaring to life at 5:27 p.m. EST, Falcon 9 pulled away southward from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A, propelling the OneWeb satellites into an initial polar orbit. The 325-pounder relay stations were deployed in three batches starting approximately one hour after liftoff.
The Falcon 9 first stage, meanwhile, completed its fourth flight with a double sonic boom and a perfect landing return on a concrete pad at nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. This year was the company’s 55th launch, the Falcon 9’s 188th flight overall, and the booster’s 154th successful recovery.
While SpaceX’s rapidly growing Starlink system also provides space-based broadband Internet services, OneWeb chief technology officer Massimiliano Ladovaz did nothing but praise the California-based rocket maker, saying the two companies are turning to different segments of the data communications market.
“It’s amazing what SpaceX can achieve in such a short time,” he said Space flight now. “The launch crews are really focused on getting the job done. We have a great relationship with SpaceX in general. We’re not competing in the same markets, it’s really about cooperation.”
While SpaceX is launching thousands of Starlink Internet satellites, OneWeb plans a fleet of “just” 648 high-altitude boosters. By Thursday’s launch, the constellation has grown to 504 satellites, with four more launches planned to round out the fleet: three aboard Falcon 9s and one on an Indian GSLV Mark 3 rocket.
Released into an initial 373-mile orbit tilted 87 degrees relative to the equator, the 40 satellites launched Thursday will use onboard xenon ion thrusters to reach their operating 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 will allow us to significantly increase the coverage of our service,” Ladovaz said.
“Basically, with this launch, we’ll be able to cover… all of the US and up (north) and half of Australia down 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 retaliation, Russia has asked OneWeb to cut its ties with the British government, which is a partial owner of the company.
OneWeb declined andawaiting launch at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb then scrambled to build replacements and booked its next flight on an Indian GSLV which it flew successfully in October. Thursday’s SpaceX launch was the second since OneWeb and Russia parted ways.
One silver lining for random launch: The team that builds the OneWeb satellitesjust outside the Kennedy Space Center did not have to look at Thursday’s flight on the Internet. For the first time, they were able to watch their satellites fly in person.