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OneWeb launches 36 internet satellites into orbit on Soyuz rocket

A Soyuz rocket launched 36 new satellites into orbit for OneWeb on Friday (Dec. 18), resuming the company's assembly of a high-speed internet constellation after its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy under new ownership.

The Soyuz rocket lifted off from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome,  in eastern Siberia near the Chinese border, at 7:26 a.m. EST (1226 GMT or 9:26 p.m. local time) in a mission conducted by launch provider Arianespace. It took nearly four hours for all 36 satellites, each the size of a washing machine, to be deployed. 

"Mission success!" OneWeb wrote in a Twitter update. "We've confirmed signal acquisition for all 36 satellites."

In photos: OneWeb launches a global satellite internet constellation

A Soyuz rocket launches 36 OneWeb internet satellites into orbit from the Vostochny Cosmodrome in eastern Siberia on Dec. 18, 2020. (Image credit: Arianespace)

This is OneWeb's fourth launch overall and the third in 2020, according to an overview from Arianespace, on a long-term goal for "providing internet access for everyone, everywhere, all the time." The company now has 110 satellites in orbit. OneWeb's vision is to have an even larger fleet of small satellites populating low Earth orbit with broadband Internet access.

But to get there, OneWeb requires further funding infusions amounting to roughly $2.5 billion to finish its planned constellation of 650 satellites and building out the network infrastructure (all of which will cost between $5.5 billion and $7 billion). 

That said, the new executive chairman of the company said Dec. 9 he is optimistic it will happen. Half of the new money will likely come from the two largest owners of OneWeb and the other half will come through fundraising.

"Thankfully, OneWeb spent a lot of money in the first phase, and that's where a lot of money goes booking the launches, building satellites," Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, told the International Telecommunication Conference, according to SpaceNews. Bharti is one of the larger entities who bought OneWeb, in a deal whose closure was announced Nov. 20.

Mittal added that Bharti raised more than $12 billion in the last 18 to 24 months for other projects, so raising more money for OneWeb is within the realm of possibility.

Under the terms of the new ownership agreement, Bharti and the U.K. government each own 42.2% of the company, with most the rest owned by SoftBank and Hughes Network Systems, SpaceNews reported in November. OneWeb also said that its new CEO would be Neil Masterson, who recently closed out 20 years at Thomson Reuters with his final role as co-chief operating officer. Masterson replaced Adrian Steckel as CEO.

OneWeb's 36 internet satellites are seen stacked in launch position ahead of a Dec. 18, 2020 launch from Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome.  (Image credit: Arianespace)

London-based OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on March 27 only days after launching nearly three dozen satellites into orbit. The filing came after its largest investor, Softbank, declined a request for additional funding, according to media reports at the time.

"Our current situation is a consequence of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis," Steckel said at the time, referring to the sudden downturn that erupted worldwide only a couple of weeks before the Chapter 11 filing. "We remain convinced of the social and economic value of our mission to connect everyone everywhere."

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.  

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