OneWeb launches 36 more satellites and prepares for global coverage

Satellite in space
Sheila Zabeu -

March 28, 2023

OneWeb, the low earth orbit (LEO) satellite communication company, has launched 36 satellites from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, India. The acquisition of signals from all of them has been confirmed.

The launch was carried out by NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) on Sunday, March 26, 2023 at 9am local time. OneWeb’s satellites successfully separated from the rocket, released in nine phases over a period of 1 hour and 14 minutes. Much of OneWeb’s previous launches were carried out by Russian-built Soyuz rockets operated by French company Arianespace. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 broke that partnership, leading OneWeb to adopt Indian rockets in addition to SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets (despite being competitors, it was responsible for three OneWeb missions).

This is OneWeb’s 18th launch, the third this year alone, bringing the company’s total to 618 satellites. The OneWeb constellation design requires 588 satellites for global coverage, but the launch of additional satellites is planned to ensure resilience and redundancy. According to the company, by the end of the year, OneWeb will be ready to provide global coverage, enhancing existing connectivity solutions that are already in operation in regions north of 50 degrees latitude.

This is also OneWeb’s second satellite launch in India, highlighting the company’s commitment to provide connectivity services across the length and breadth of the country, to businesses, towns, villages, municipalities and schools, including in remote areas.

OneWeb Movements

With the UK government as a minority shareholder, OneWeb signed a memorandum of understanding with Eutelsat Communications in the middle of last year to promote the merger of the two companies to create a single, powerful global connectivity player. Eutelsat has a fleet of 36 geostationary orbiting (GEO) satellites that have been added to OneWeb’s LEO constellation, which is expected to generate combined revenues of €1.2 billion.

As early as March 2023, OneWeb and Orange, one of the world’s leading telecommunications operators, announced an agreement to expand connectivity services in Europe, Africa, Latin America and other regions. With this partnership, Orange will offer enhanced connectivity services, integrating OneWeb’s LEO technology, to corporate customers and telecom operators in different areas of the world.

Sunil Mittal, CEO of Indian conglomerate Bharti Enterprises, co-owner of OneWeb, says the company is able to compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink. According to the executive, OneWeb is already operating in 15 countries. In addition, OneWeb should have all statutory approvals to launch high-speed satellite broadband services in India by July, something that could give it a competitive edge in a nascent market. Mittal also expects India’s long-awaited satellite communications policy to be defined soon, and reiterated that spectrum for such communications should not be auctioned but distributed administratively.

Besides OneWeb, Reliance Jio is also hoping to deploy satellite broadband services. ElonMusk’s Starlink and Nelco, a company of the Indian Tata group, have also applied for the same permission. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is also eyeing the opportunity to provide satellite broadband services in India. China‘s military-industrial complex is also expected to start building its LEO satellite constellation later this year.

Space pollution

As soon as they started populating the low orbit of space, LEO satellites are already causing pollution. The warning was given by scientists, who explained that this equipment is increasing the overall brightness of the night sky, threatening terrestrial astronomy as well as other groups and ecosystems that depend on viewing dark skies. Another concern for professional astronomy is the proliferation of debris.

According to researchers from several academic institutions, increased traffic in low Earth orbit will lead to the loss of astronomical data and reduce opportunities for discovery as faint astrophysical signals become increasingly lost among the noise. “Space and dark skies represent an intangible heritage that deserves preservation and safeguarding for future generations,” they say in a paper in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The growing number of LEO satellites that is soon expected to reach many tens of thousands is also generating alarm among atmospheric scientists about how they can damage the protective ozone layer that protects life on Earth from solar radiation. According to these scholars, the kerosene-powered rockets that lift these satellites into low Earth orbit, as well as the materials that make up the satellites themselves, such as aluminium, carbon fibre, epoxies, metals and electronic parts, can contribute to ozone depletion as they disintegrate in space and descend into the stratosphere. There is also concern around emissions during the re-entry of satellites into the Earth’s atmosphere.