WASHINGTON — OneWeb, the broadband megaconstellation company whose launch plans were disrupted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, expects to resume launches late this year, an executive said June 23.
Speaking at the Fourth Summit for Space Sustainability by the Secure World Foundation and the U.K. Space Agency, Maurizio Vanotti, vice president of space infrastructure development and partnerships at OneWeb, said new launch agreements with SpaceX and NewSpace India Ltd. (NSIL) would allow the company to launch the remaining satellites of its first-generation system by the second quarter of 2023.
“Our plan is to be back on the launch pad in quarter four, after the summer, and to complete deployment of the constellation by quarter two next year,” he said. It will take several months after that final launch for the satellites to move to their operational orbits, he added.
“We’re going to be in service with global coverage, 24/7, by the end of next year,” he said.
OneWeb once expected to have its constellation complete by the end of this year using Soyuz rockets. Its plans were upended, though, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions. OneWeb formally suspended launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome after rejecting conditions imposed by Roscosmos that included no military use of the satellites and divestment of the British government’s stake in the company.
OneWeb announced less than three weeks later a launch agreement with SpaceX, but neither company disclosed details about the agreement. Notably, Vanotti said that the agreement, negotiated over less than three days, is for a “few Falcon 9 launches.” The companies had previously declined to say even how many launches were included in the agreement.
OneWeb announced April 20 that it signed an agreement with NSIL, the commercial arm of the Indian space agency ISRO, for launches of OneWeb satellites. Vanotti confirmed that NSIL will launch those satellites on the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 3, the most powerful version of the GSLV but one that has not launched since 2019. He did not disclose how many launches that contract includes.
“Considering the geopolitical situation, I would say that we’ve had an incredible turnaround with great support from both SpaceX and the Indian space agency,” he said.
Commitment to space sustainability
Vanotti appeared on a panel with Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband constellation, where both emphasized their commitment to space sustainability.
“Space sustainability is critical for Project Kuiper. It’s been a priority from day one,” Zoller said, citing as examples the company’s plans to use narrow tolerances for the orbits of the satellites and to actively deorbit them at the end of their lives.
“We take our responsibility for the space commons extremely seriously,” Vanotti said, emphasizing the company’s commitment to reliability for its satellites to ensure they can deorbit at the end of their lives. The high orbit of the OneWeb satellites means they will not reenter within 25 years, as recommended by current orbital debris mitigation guidelines, with atmospheric drag alone.
OneWeb has also worked to ensure its satellites can be removed from orbit by other spacecraft should their onboard propulsion fail. However, Zoller said there were no similar plans for Project Kuiper satellites, in part because those satellites are in lower orbits of between 590 and 630 kilometers. “We’re not using a third party to do active debris removal. We are the active debris remover,” she said, claiming the satellites can deorbit within 10 years even without propulsion.
Both also said they were working on another element of space sustainability, reducing the brightness of their satellites to limit their interference to astronomy. For Amazon, that includes a test with two prototype satellites that the company plans to launch as soon as late this year on an ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket. Zoller said one of the two satellites will be equipped with a sunshade to block sunlight from reflecting off parts of the satellite, similar to the “VisorSat” concept SpaceX used for some of its Starlink satellites.
“We can compare and contrast the difference between a shielded and an unshielded satellite in our very first launch,” she said. “We’re excited to get data on that and to find out what we can do next.”
Vanotti said OneWeb keeps in contact with astronomical groups in the United States and United Kingdom, and in the last year started an “active observation campaign” to monitor the brightness of its satellites. Those observations help refine a model of the satellites. “We’re going to be using this tool in order to optimize the design of the future generation of our satellites,” he said, “to have a lower impact on dark skies.”