from the 3,2,1,launch dept.
After canceling business with Russia's space program, OneWeb is tapping rival SpaceX to help it launch its remaining internet satellites into orbit.
"We are pleased to announce that we have entered into a launch agreement withSpaceX that will enable OneWeb to resume satellite launches," UK-based OneWeb announced on Twitter today. The first launch of the OneWeb satellites using SpaceX rockets is scheduled for sometime later this year, the company added.
OneWeb previously relied on Russia's Roscosmos to launch the satellites. However, the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing sanctions from Europe caused Roscosmos to essentially retaliate by postponing an upcoming launch of OneWeb satellites.
Roscosmos then demanded the UK government divest itself from OneWeb. In response, the company canceled all launches through Russia's space program.
OneWeb's contingency plan of using SpaceX is a little surprising since both companies are competing in the internet satellite market. This has resulted in some bickering amongst each other in government regulatory filings. Last year, for example, OneWeb accused SpaceX's satellite internet system of colliding with its own.
Demonstrating a level of flexibility that no other commercial launch provider on Earth can likely match, SpaceX and OneWeb have entered into a major launch contract barely three weeks after Russia kicked the satellite internet company off of its Soyuz rockets.
Beginning in early 2020, OneWeb has launched approximately 430 operational small internet satellites – about two-thirds of its first constellation – on a dozen different Russian Soyuz 2.1b and ST-B rockets, including a mission completed as recently as February 10th, 2022. That nominal – albeit slow – deployment ground to a violent halt alongside Russia's second unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. Within a week, extraordinary Western economic sanctions pushed the unstable head of Russia's Roscosmos space agency to retaliate by both ending the practice of European-owned Soyuz launches and holding OneWeb's 13th operational launch hostage.
Another three weeks later, outside of increasingly tense and reluctant cooperation on the International Space Station, the relationship between Russian and Western spaceflight programs has effectively ceased to exist. That includes all 6-7 of OneWeb's remaining Soyuz launch contracts, each of which the company had already paid more than $50 million for. Though OneWeb technicians were able to escape the increasingly hostile country, Russia effectively repossessed (i.e. stole) OneWeb's remaining rockets and its 13th batch of operational satellites.
That left OneWeb in an unsurprisingly precarious situation. Having already gone bankrupt once, a major delay could be financially catastrophic for the company. Normally, procuring half a dozen near-term launch contracts at the last second would be virtually impossible. Indeed, ignoring a certain US company, no other launch provider on Earth could even theoretically find or build enough capacity to launch the last third of OneWeb's constellation without at least a one or two-year delay. Luckily for OneWeb, SpaceX does exist.
Just a few days before the launch was set to take place, Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, demanded that Russia would only launch OneWeb's satellites if the company promised that the spacecraft would not be used for military purposes. Rogozin also demanded that the British government divest its entire stake in OneWeb. In 2020, the UK invested roughly $500 million in OneWeb in order to save the company from bankruptcy, and the UK government became a major shareholder along with Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global.
OneWeb and the UK refused to submit to the demands, and the company wound up suspending all further launches of its satellites from Kazakhstan. Roscosmos rolled back the Soyuz rocket carrying the 36 OneWeb satellites from its launchpad, and the satellites have yet to be returned to OneWeb. The company isn't sure what happened to the spacecraft or if they'll ever be returned. "The thing about the satellites is honestly they're the least of our problems," Chris McLaughlin, chief of government, regulatory, and engagement at OneWeb, tells The Verge. "We make two a day in the factory in Florida. So we can find ways to get a resilient solution."
Previously: SpaceX and OneWeb Clash Over Proposed Satellite Constellation Orbits
FCC Approves SpaceX Lowering Orbit of Internet Satellites
SpaceX Approved to Deploy 1 Million U.S. Starlink Terminals; OneWeb Reportedly Considers Bankruptcy
Russia Places Extraordinary Demands on OneWeb Prior to Satellite Launch
After years of relentless legal badgering from internet satellite constellation competitor OneWeb, SpaceX's regulatory and legal affairs team appears to have begun to (in a professional manner) lose patience with the constant barrage.
On February 21st, SpaceX published a withering refutation of OneWeb's latest criticism that offered a range of no-holds-barred counterarguments, painting the competitor – or at least its legal affairs department – as an entity keen on trying to undermine Starlink with FCC-directed critiques based on flawed reasoning, false assumptions, misinterpretations, and more. Alongside a number of memorable one-liners and retorts, legal counselors William Wiltshire and Paul Caritj and SpaceX executives Patricia Cooper and David Goldman openly "wonder whether OneWeb would be satisfied with SpaceX operating at any altitude whatsoever."
In late 2018, SpaceX filed a request with the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that would allow the company to significantly modify parts of its Starlink satellite constellation license, cutting 16 spacecraft from the original total of 4425 and moving Phase 1's now-1584 satellites from an operating altitude of ~1100-1300 km (680-810 mi) to just 550 km (340 mi). Aside from further reducing the latency of communications, SpaceX also argues that "the principal reason" behind lowering the operational altitude of the first ~37% of Starlink satellites was "to [further] enhance the already considerable space safety attributes of [the] constellation."
[...] [There] is a great deal more irony to be found in OneWeb's attempt to block SpaceX from lowering the orbit of its first ~1600 satellites. In 2017 and 2018, the company repeatedly complained to the FCC about the fact that SpaceX's Starlink constellation was to nominally be placed in orbits from ~1100-1300 km, effectively sandwiching OneWeb's own ~1200 km constellation. OneWeb continues to demand an unreasonable level of special treatment from the FCC, hoping that the commission will allow it to establish a sort of buffer zone extending 125 km above and below its own constellation, basically demanding that a huge swath of low Earth orbit be OneWeb's and OneWeb's alone. In reality, this is likely nothing more than a thinly veiled anti-competitive tactic, in which success would almost entirely bar other prospective space-based internet providers from even considering the same orbit.
Related: Competing Communications Constellations Considered
Airbus and OneWeb Begin Building Satellites for Internet Constellation
FCC Authorizes SpaceX to Provide Broadband Satellite Services
U.S. Air Force Awards SpaceX $28.7 Million to Study Military Applications of Starlink
Blue Origin to Provide Multiple Orbital Launches for Telesat
SpaceX Seeks Approval for 1 Million Starlink Ground Stations, Faces Pentagon Audit
In November, SpaceX sent a request to the FCC to partially revise plans for the company’s satellite internet constellation, known as Starlink. Under SpaceX’s original agreement with the commission, the company had permission to launch 4,425 Starlink satellites into orbits that ranged between 1,110 to 1,325 kilometers up. But then SpaceX decided it wanted to fly 1,584 of those satellites in different orbits, thanks to what it had learned from its first two test satellites, TinTin A and B. Instead of flying them at 1,150 kilometers, the company now wants to fly them much lower at 550 kilometers.
And now the FCC is on board. “This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation satellite constellation and connect people around the world with reliable and affordable broadband service,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement.
"“This approval underscores the FCC’s confidence in SpaceX’s plans.”"
SpaceX argues that by operating satellites at this orbit, the Starlink constellation will have much lower latency in signal, cutting down transmission time to just 15 milliseconds.
The first batch of satellites is already at the launch site and is expected to liftoff sometime in May. SpaceX plans to launch a total of nearly 12,000 satellites to build its Starlink satellite constellation, although most of these will be in higher orbits.
Not everyone was happy about SpaceX’s updated plans, though. OneWeb, another company developing a large satellite internet network, and satellite operator Kepler Communications both filed petitions to deny SpaceX’s request for a change to the FCC. They both argue that since SpaceX uses similar frequencies, the Starlink satellites could interfere with their satellites if moved to a lower orbit. But ultimately, the FCC did not think interference would be an issue.
There are other companies undertaking similar projects. Previously-mentioned OneWeb has already launched the initial six satellites of an eventual buildout of 650 satellites. Amazon has announced its own internet initiative called Project Kuiper which will put another 3,236 satellites in orbit.
SpaceX has received government approval to deploy up to 1 million user terminals in the United States for its Starlink satellite-broadband constellation.
SpaceX asked the Federal Communications Commission for the license in February 2019, and the FCC announced its approval in a public notice last week. The FCC approval is for "a blanket license for the operation of up to 1,000,000 fixed earth stations that will communicate with [SpaceX's] non-geostationary orbit satellite system." The license is good for 15 years.
[...] One million terminals would only cover a fraction of US homes, but SpaceX isn't necessarily looking to sign up huge portions of the US population. Musk said at the conference that Starlink will likely serve the "3 or 4 percent hardest-to-reach customers for telcos" and "people who simply have no connectivity right now, or the connectivity is really bad." Starlink won't have lots of customers in big cities like LA "because the bandwidth per cell is simply not high enough," he said.
OneWeb, the only pressing competitor facing SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet constellation, has reportedly begun to consider filing for bankruptcy shortly before the London-based company completed its third dedicated launch.
Russia has taken the extraordinary step of placing multiple demands on OneWeb and its government ownership prior to a planned launch of satellites Friday aboard a Soyuz rocket.
The mission, to loft 34 broadband communications satellites into orbit, was to be the 14th launch of OneWeb satellites. The company presently has 428 satellites in orbit, out of a planned total of 648 for its initial constellation. OneWeb had hoped to begin commercial service around the world later this year.
The vast majority of those satellites have launched on Russian Soyuz rockets, one of the few boosters in the world with spare lift capacity for a megaconstellation at this time. Another six Soyuz launches were scheduled for later this year to complete the OneWeb constellation.
But those plans were thrown into question by Russia's invasion of Ukraine last week. OneWeb, which is jointly owned by the United Kingdom government and an Indian multinational company, has not offered any public comments since the invasion.
Russia is demanding guarantees that OneWeb not be used for military purposes and that the UK sell its share in the company. If you have some spare trampolines and your name doesn't rhyme with Melon Usk, please contact OneWeb ASAP.