Soyuz rocket launches 36 OneWeb satellites into orbit for modified satellite internet constellation

A Soyuz rocket successfully sent 36 OneWeb satellites into orbit Wednesday (March 24) as the London-based company continues its recovery from a tough 2020.

The European launch provider Arianespace launched the Soyuz rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's far east at 10:47 p.m. EDT (0247 GMT or 11:47 a.m. local time Thursday, March 25). 

OneWeb satellites should have begun to deploy in groups of four beginning at 12:05 a.m. EDT (0405 GMT on Thursday, March 25), with the ninth and final group expected to deploy at 2:38 a.m. EDT (0638 GMT), if all goes according to plan. The satellites will circle Earth in a near-polar orbit at an altitude of roughly 280 miles (450 kilometers), which is slightly higher than the tilted equatorial orbit of the International Space Station.

This was the fifth launch for OneWeb overall. The satellite constellation, still under construction, aims to offer access to the Internet in remote areas using multiple Internet protocols, including 3G, LTE, the newest generation 5G (which enables the Internet of Things) and Wi-Fi, according to launch provider Arianespace.

In photos: OneWeb launches global satellite internet constellation

OneWeb "is focused on scaling the satellite constellation to launch commercial services starting at the end of 2021 to the UK, Alaska, Canada, northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic seas," Arianespace wrote in a mission description.

OneWeb had originally planned to put 48,000 satellites into orbit, but after a tough 2020 it filed a request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in January proposing 6,372 satellites.

The company, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a year ago shortly after the coronavirus pandemic erupted, told the FCC that the revision "demonstrates the commitment and vision" of its new owners, which are the British government and Indian telecom company Bharti Global. The goal is to deploy "a cost-effective, responsible, and groundbreaking satellite network to deliver global broadband," according to the filing, which was quoted by Space News in January.

A release by OneWeb announcing the new launch said the company is now "hiring at a fast pace" — with 200 new employees coming in since last fall — as the company builds a global ground station network. It pointed to a $73 million contract with Intellian for user terminals, and another contract (for an undisclosed amount) with Satixfy for Wi-Fi terminals on aircraft.

"OneWeb Satellites, a joint venture with Airbus, is manufacturing the satellites and has returned to full production," OneWeb added, saying it has secured global priority spectrum rights with the International Telecommunications Union to support the growing constellation. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: