OneWeb launches 36 more satellites for LEO broadband fleet

OneWeb’s low Earth orbit (LEO) constellation reached 218 last week following the successful launch of 36 more satellites to deliver broadband connectivity.

The satellite company said it’s on track to start delivering commercial service across the U.K., Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada before the end of 2021. OneWeb is targeting global availability in 2022 using 648 satellites in total for its first-generation system.

The May 28 launch marked OneWeb’s fourth, meaning one more remains until there are enough satellites to cover regions north of 50 degrees latitude (dubbed its ‘Five to 50’ initiative) by this summer.

Launch company Arianespace successfully sent the latest batch into orbit from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, with signal acquisition on all 36 confirmed.

OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson applauded the team that helped build the satellites. Created by a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus, the facility on Merritt Island in Florida can produce two satellites a day thanks to advanced manufacturing capabilities, according to the company.

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“Today we celebrate and thank our Florida team for their hard work and dedication that has delivered more than 200 satellites to orbit. Collaboration and teamwork are vital for OneWeb's mission to succeed,” Masterson said in a statement. “We are grateful to all our partners around the world who are joining us on our mission to deliver global connectivity, starting with everywhere 50 degrees north."

OneWeb emerged from bankruptcy last November, with a $1 billion equity investment from a consortium led by the U.K. Government and India’s Bharti Global as new owners. This year SoftBank and Hughes Network Systems contributed additional funding. Hughes is producing ground system gateway equipment and user terminal modules for OneWeb in a three-year contract valued at $250 million.

In April OneWeb announced another investment, $550 million from satellite operator Eutelsat for a 24% equity stake, expected to be completed in the second half of 2021.

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One of several companies working on LEO satellite broadband projects (such as SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Kuiper Project and Telesat’s LightSpeed), OneWeb is looking to connections from its key backers as it targets enterprise, government, maritime and aviation markets, as well as options to supplement service provider broadband.

The start of 2021 saw OneWeb significantly scale down its request to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for access to the market – shrinking plans to 6,372 satellites versus the nearly 48,000 it had proposed in 2020.

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While the first-generation LEO broadband system isn’t completed yet, OneWeb is preparing for a second-gen satellite constellation. It’s partnering with U.K. space tech companies on a “beam-hopping satellite” that allows beams to be remotely directed to boost coverage in response to real-time demand, surges or natural disasters. The project is part of the European Space Agency’s Sunrise program and involves more than £32 million from the U.K. Space Agency.

Launch of a second generation demo satellite is expected in 2022.