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OneWeb turns to a competitor—SpaceX—to complete its constellation


A stack of OneWeb satellites is shown before a launch at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.
Enlarge / A stack of OneWeb satellites is shown before a launch at Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

OneWeb

OneWeb announced on Monday that it has reached an agreement with SpaceX to complete its constellation of low Earth orbit broadband satellites.

This decision was necessitated after the United Kingdom-based company decided it could no longer launch on Russia’s Soyuz rocket following the war against Ukraine. The Russian invasion occurred just days before 34 OneWeb satellites were due to launch on a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. In response to Western sanctions, Russia placed extraordinary demands on OneWeb in return for conducting the launch scheduled for March 4, and it ultimately did not take place. Those satellites remain in Kazakhstan for now.

Effectively, this ended OneWeb’s agreement with Russia for satellite launches. The Soyuz had launched nearly all 428 of the company’s satellites that are presently in orbit. The company had planned to use the Soyuz rocket to complete its first-generation constellation of 648 satellites by the end of 2022. Using Arianespace as an intermediary, OneWeb had already paid for those six launches. Russia has vowed not to return the money.

With the Soyuz rocket off the table, there were few other launch options for OneWeb, which is headquartered in London and partly owned by the UK government. Europe has no spare launch capacity, with all of its remaining Ariane 5 launches spoken for, and the Ariane 6 rocket is probably at least two years away from having operational capacity.

Last October, OneWeb and India’s space program, ISRO, reached an agreement to use Indian rockets for future satellite launches. But these rockets have not demonstrated a high launch cadence. Japan’s H2A rocket was also considered, but it, too, lacks significant capacity.

That left SpaceX, the only Western company with excess launch capacity for medium-lift missions in the near term. OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson said in a news release on Monday that the first launch on a Falcon 9 rocket will take place later this year.

“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision for the boundless potential of space,” he said. “With these launch plans in place, we’re on track to finish building out our full fleet of satellites and deliver robust, fast, secure connectivity around the globe.”

The company declined to disclose terms of the deal, both the amount paid per launch and the number of satellites per launch.

Although SpaceX was really the only viable option for OneWeb if it wanted to complete its first-generation constellation within the next 12 to 24 months, this could not have been an easy decision. SpaceX, of course, operates its own broadband constellation, Starlink. While the two companies do not directly compete for commercial service—OneWeb is not targeting general consumers—they are both going after government contracts around the world.

Now, OneWeb is in a position to directly support a competitor by subsidizing the costs of its launch operations.

Monday’s decision also underscores the reality that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a devastating impact on its space industry. No Western nation is likely to do business with Russia in space for a long time, and that will leave SpaceX, with its reusable Falcon 9 and excess launch capacity, in a stronger position.

This all comes 20 years after SpaceX CEO Elon Musk visited Russia in order to purchase a repurposed ICBM to launch the “Mars Oasis” project. Russia’s rejection of Musk was one of the spurs that led to his founding of SpaceX. Now, two decades later, Musk is the one selling rockets to the rest of the world.



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