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OneWeb inks deal to launch its LEO satellites from India

UK prime minister visits country to 'welcome' contract, namecheck commercial pacts, talk up trade

OneWeb has agreed with the commercial arm of Indian Space Research Organization, New Space India Limited, to deploy its Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband satellites from the country's launch pad outside Chennai.

The launches from Satish Dhawan Space Centre, on the island of Sriharikota, north of Chennai on India's east coast, will occur sometime before the end of the year, OneWeb said in its canned statement.

The company will reportedly use its largest launch vehicle – the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV).

The UK-based satellite internet company did not say how many satellites were included in the contract, but its fleet is 66 percent complete at 428 satellites, meaning it has 220 left to go.

OneWeb typically launches around 34 to 36 satellites at a time, although the GSLV Mark III could comfortably handle a dozen more as it's rated for 8,000kg payloads to LEO (payload to geostationary transfer orbit is half that at 4,000kg).

OneWeb's original plans were to launch the sats using Soyuz rockets from the Russia-leased Baikonur spaceport in Kazakhstan; that plan was cancelled March 4 due to the war in Ukraine although threats from Roscosmos would not have helped. On March 2, the Russian space agency publicly demanded OneWeb remove the British government as a shareholder before using Russian rockets to loft the satellites. To date, 36 OneWeb satellites remain stranded at Baikonur.

The company last launched its 150kg-apiece internet machines into space on February 10 from the Arianespace facility in Kourou, French Guiana.

Rival satellite internet company SpaceX agreed to assist sometime this year.

In the announcement of its contract with New Space India Limited, OneWeb clarified that the SpaceX deal was still on.

"This launch contract follows a separate agreement between OneWeb and SpaceX to enable the company to resume satellite launches, announced in March 2022," said OneWeb.

OneWeb's spaceport conundrum has made the company a bit of a problem child for the UK government. It bailed out OneWeb in 2020, as did Bharti Global, the overseas arm of Indian MNC Bharti Enterprises.

However, politicians, namely UK prime minister Boris Johnson, seem keen to distance themselves from the deal.

Interestingly, BoJo arrives today in Gujarat for a two-day visit to India where he will announce £1 billion ($1.3 billion) of new commercial deals. This is his first official visit to the subcontinent.

"As I arrive in India today, I see vast possibilities for what our two great nations can achieve together. From next-generation 5G telecoms and AI to new partnerships in health research and renewable energy – the UK and India are leading the world," said the PM in a canned statement.

OneWeb originally set a target of having its first-generation satellite constellation completed by the end of 2022, a date that has clearly become a stretch goal at this point.

But even without its entire fleet in place, the satellite internet provider assured everyone that it has already activated service with its network at the 50th parallel and above. ®

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