There’s action brewing at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, Russia’s newest spaceport in the far eastern Amur Oblast near the Chinese border. Thirty-six satellites, built in a joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus, are stowed inside the nose cone of a Soyuz-2.1b rocket, preparing for a lift to space. Launch is scheduled for May 27, 2021, at 1:43 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time (17:43 UTC). That’s early May 28 local time at Vostochny, about two hours before sunrise. To follow the launch live online, try OneWeb’s website or the website or YouTube channel of Arianespace (audio feed in English starting around T-15 minutes).
The launch of 36 new satellites will grow the OneWeb fleet to 218 satellites, making it the secnd-largest global internet network in Earth orbit, after SpaceX’s Starlink. The company plans for a total of 648 satellites (in contrast to SpaceX’s 12,000). This is the fourth in a set of five Soyuz missions that OneWeb says will enable the network to provide initial connectivity to internet users north of 50 degrees latitude. More specifically, OneWeb, a European company, said in a statement:
OneWeb’s Five to 50 program aims to connect broadband data users in the northern hemisphere, with services covering the United Kingdom, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas and Canada. Service will be ready to start by the end of year, with global service available in 2022.
The four-hour mission will place the 36 OneWeb satellites – each about the size of a mini-fridge – into a polar orbit around 279 miles (450 km) above Earth. Then in the coming months, each one will deploy power-generating solar panels and switch on their plasma thrusters to reach an operational altitude of 745 miles (1,200 km).
Moreover, OneWeb’s seventh launch will mark the sixth Soyuz flight dedicated to commercial broadband internet. The first three took place in February 2019, February 2020 and March 2020. Four more are scheduled from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan later this year, each carrying more than 30 satellites. There’s expected to be a total of 19 Soyuz launches on behalf of OneWeb: an endeavor that Arianespace, who sold the flights to OneWeb, supports. Arianespace oversees Soyuz flights from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana, plus launches out of both Vostochny and Baikonur.
OneWeb competition with SpaceX
The busy string of launches planned by OneWeb is outpaced by only SpaceX, which is deploying a network of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide its own global internet services. Other entities are developing their own megaconstellations – including Amazon and China – but neither has begun deploying operational spacecraft. SpaceX has been able to jump so far ahead of the competition thanks in large part to its own fleet of reusable Falcon 9 rocket boosters. As of last week, the number of Starlink satellites currently in orbit is at more than 1,500. And over the coming few years, SpaceX plans to send up at least 12,000, and perhaps as many as 30,000 eventually.
But the Starlink network’s design flies closer to Earth, requiring more satellites in number. At a lower altitude, the individual satellites will get pulled down to Earth by atmospheric drag and burn up in a few years, so that they don’t become orbiting litter once they die. Neither Arianespace nor OneWeb have addressed the risk of their spacecraft becoming a long-term source of space junk. Plus, astronomers are worried. These megaconstellations are photobombing astronomical images, and have the potential to interfere with the professional observations that have brought us our modern-day view of the cosmos.
Nevertheless, both commercial ventures are designed to beam internet signals to reach underserved communities in rural and remote areas. And both OneWeb and SpaceX have demonstrated their connectivity services to the U.S. military, too. It’s not unlikely that before 2022, users will have options when choosing their high-speed service providers, offering 3G, LTE, 5G, and Wi-Fi coverage by air, sea, and land.
OneWeb’s former bankruptcy
The “Five to 50” launches began in December following OneWeb’s bankruptcy proceedings after running into fundraising trouble. It was able to return to operations after the U.K. government and Indian telecom service provider Bharti Global acquired the company late last year. Now, OneWeb is headquartered in London, England, with satellite operations centers ranging from Great Britain to Virginia. Russian media reports that the next, fifth and final deployment in its rapid-fire launch schedule is currently set for July 1.
This graphic image lists the time, date, duration, and orbit details of the OneWeb 7 mission.
Details about the OneWeb launch. Image via Arianespace.
Bottom line: Launch of 36 new OneWeb satellites is scheduled for 1:43 p.m. EDT on May 27, 2021. The launch will grow the OneWeb fleet to 218 satellites, making it the second-largest global internet network in Earth orbit, after Starlink. It’s the fourth in a set of five Soyuz missions that OneWeb says will enable the network to provide initial connectivity to users north of 50 degrees latitude.