Soyuz rocket successfully launches 34 more OneWeb satellites

A Soyuz-2.1b rocket lifted off Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with 34 more OneWeb satellites. Credit: Roscosmos

A Soyuz rocket and Fregat upper stage lifted off Saturday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, delivering 34 more satellites to orbit for OneWeb’s space-based Internet network in the company’s second launch this year.

The Russian Soyuz-2.1b rocket fired its main engines and climbed away from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 1706:58 GMT (1:06:58 p.m. EDT; 10:06:58 p.m. Baikonur time) carrying the 34 Florida-built satellites into orbit.

With exhaust spewing from 32 engine nozzles, the Soyuz soared to the north from the Central Asia spaceport with more than 900,000 pounds of thrust.

After shedding four kerosene-fueled first stage boosters, a core stage and payload shroud, the Soyuz third stage accelerated to near orbital velocity with the mission’s Fregat upper stage. The Fregat deployed from the Soyuz third stage and fired two times in a little more than an hour to inject the 34 OneWeb satellites into a near-circular polar orbit with an average altitude of around 280 miles (450 kilometers).

The Russian-made Fregat carried a multi-payload dispenser produced by RUAG Space in Sweden, which released the 34 satellites in groups of two or four. The final satellites separated nearly four hours after liftoff, and confirmation of the spacecraft separation events was relayed from the Fregat stage to ground stations intermittently — as planned — as the rocket passed overhead.

Arianespace, which is managing the launch services for OneWeb, confirmed all 34 satellites had separated from the rocket. It was the fourth launch of the year for Arianespace, and likely the last in the coming weeks, after officials suspended launch operations at the company’s primary operating base in French Guiana due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“I am very proud of the teams at Arianespace, Starsem and their partners here in Baikonur and also in French Guiana for having performed four successful launches within a 10-week period, including two on behalf of OneWeb,” said Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace.

This image from an animation produced by Arianespace illustrates the process of deploying the OneWeb satellites from the Fregat upper stage’s dispenser. Credit: Arianespace

The successful launch Saturday gives OneWeb a constellation of 74 satellites, including spacecraft placed in orbit on two previous Soyuz/Fregat missions in February 2019 and on Feb. 6 of this year.

“We are very proud of the progress we have made so far in 2020 and I would like to show the utmost gratitude for the time, effort, and expertise of the OneWeb company, our partners and our people as we come together and support one another,” said Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb, in a statement.

The launch Saturday went ahead despite reports that OneWeb might seek bankruptcy protection, and during stringent restrictions on travel stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

The London-based satellite operator is one of two companies currently launching large constellations of satellites into low Earth orbit to beam Internet signals to consumers around the world. SpaceX, the other company, has deployed 360 satellites for its Starlink network since last May, well on the way to the fleet’s initial operating number of more than 1,500 spacecraft.

OneWeb plans an initial fleet of nearly 650 satellites. OneWeb does not need as many satellites as SpaceX’s Starlink network because the OneWeb spacecraft fly at higher altitudes.

But Bloomberg reported Thursday that OneWeb was considering a bankruptcy filing as it faces a cash crunch.

Citing sources familiar with the negotiations, Bloomberg reported OneWeb is grappling with “high costs and stiff competition” in the satellite broadband market. Bloomberg said OneWeb was considering filing for bankruptcy even as the company considers other possible out-of-court alternatives.

A OneWeb spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

OneWeb’s largest investor is the Japanese company SoftBank, a conglomerate now suffering financially after bad investments. And the trouble has been exacerbated by stock market plunges during the coronavirus pandemic.

As of last year, OneWeb had raised $3.4 billion from SoftBank, Airbus, Qualcomm and other investors.

Founded by Greg Wyler, a satellite and telecom entrepreneur, OneWeb faces intense competition from deep-pocketed entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Musk’s SpaceX is working on the Starlink network, and Amazon has plans for its own satellite constellation named Kuiper to provide broadband connectivity from space.

“In these unprecedented times following the global outbreak of COVID-19, people around the world find themselves trying to continue their lives and work online,” Steckel said in a statement. “We see the need for OneWeb, greater now more than ever before. High-quality connectivity is the lifeline to enabling people to work, continue their education, stay up to date on important healthcare information and stay meaningfully connected to one another.

“The crisis has demonstrated the imperative need for connectivity everywhere and has exposed urgent shortcomings in many organizations’ connectivity capabilities,” Steckel said. “Our satellite network is poised to fill in many of these critical gaps in the global communications infrastructure.”

Members of the OneWeb control team at the company’s satellite operations center in Tysons Corner, Virginia, practice social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: OneWeb

OneWeb inked a launch contract in 2015 for 21 launches with Arianespace, the French launch services provider which oversees commercial Soyuz missions. Arianespace’s subsidiary, Starsem, arranges preparations for the Soyuz missions launching from Baikonur and Vostochny, while Arianespace itself manages Soyuz launches from French Guiana.

With Saturday’s mission, OneWeb needs around 15 more launches to fill out OneWeb’s network of 588 operational satellites. The company may eventually add at least 60 more spares to get to 648 total spacecraft in the first-generation OneWeb fleet.

Assuming its financially viable and with market demand, OneWeb has a constellation of nearly 2,000 satellites on the drawing board.

Fourteen of the additional OneWeb launches are expected to use Soyuz rockets later this year and next year from Baikonur, Vostochny and French Guiana. And OneWeb has agreed to launch at least 30 satellites on the inaugural flight of the next-generation European Ariane 6 rocket from French Guiana at the end of 2020.

The work stoppage at the Guiana Space Center due to the coronavirus pandemic could delay the Ariane 6’s first launch date.

OneWeb officials said last month they planned 10 launches this year, including the successful mission completed Feb. 6. That scheduled comprised around half of Arianespace’s 2020 launch manifest, and a sizable percentage of all Soyuz launches planned this year.

Those launches may be in doubt due to OneWeb’s cash problem.

OneWeb’s satellites are manufactured at a factory near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A company named OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus, builds the satellites in an assembly line fashion.

The factory is designed to produce two satellites per day on dual assembly lines. The mass-produced satellites each weigh about 325 pounds (147.5 kilograms), featuring xenon-fed ion thrusters, Ku-band and Ka-band antennas to link with customers and ground stations, and deployable solar array wings.

The OneWeb satellites will use their ion thrusters to raise altitude to 745 miles (1,200 kilometers), where OneWeb aims to put the spacecraft into service.

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