OneWeb turns to SpaceX for satellite launches

Alternative sought after firm boycotts Russian rockets over Ukraine invasion

OneWeb will resume construction of its communications satellite constellation courtesy of SpaceX's rockets.

The announcement comes weeks after the UK government-backed company confirmed it would be suspending all launches from the Baikonur spaceport because of the conflict in Ukraine.

OneWeb was close to completing its constellation, aimed at providing high-speed and low-latency connectivity. Its fleet stands at 428 satellites, 66 per cent of the total, and had expected to complete the constellation this year. However, having sent up batches of 34 or 36 satellites a time on Russian Soyuz rockets, the fun came to an abrupt end after a 10 February launch from the Arianespace facility in Kourou, French Guiana.

The next launch was due from Baikonur on 5 March, but after increasingly shrill demands from Russian space agency Roscosmos, including a call for the UK government to drop its stake in the company, OneWeb and its board voted to suspend the remaining six upcoming launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

It is unlikely the venerable Soyuz rocket will be pressed into service by Western firms any time soon. Roscosmos has also recalled its personnel from the Arianespace site.

With each OneWeb satellite weighing in at around 150kg, there aren't that many alternative options for launching batches of 34 or 36 at time. The remaining flights of United Launch Alliance's Atlas V are spoken for and Arianespace is seeking to replace its Ariane 5 in the near future.

Enter SpaceX and its Falcon 9, which has continued putting Starlink satellites into orbit while OneWeb's spacecraft remain grounded. It's a surprising choice considering the rivalry between the companies (both of which aim to provide broadband via satellite), but also somewhat inevitable.

The first launch is expected this year, although the terms of the agreement with SpaceX are confidential at present. While OneWeb has not confirmed when that first launch will occur, it would seem unlikely to be before the second half of this year not least due to the suddenly increased workload of the Falcon 9 booster. It's handy, then, that the booster is reusable – SpaceX sent up another batch of Starlink satellites last weekend, marking the first time a Falcon 9 first stage had launched and returned 12 times.

Though OneWeb has managed to activate some of its network, a question mark hangs over the batch of satellites stranded in Baikonur following removal from their Soyuz launcher. The Register contacted OneWeb to learn their fate and will update if the company responds. ®

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