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

A Soyuz rocket (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) launched the Soyuz rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab) (which enables the Internet of Things) and Wi-Fi, according to launch provider Arianespace.

In photos: OneWeb launches global satellite internet constellation (opens in new tab)

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 (opens in new tab).

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 (opens in new tab) 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 (opens in new tab).

A release by OneWeb (opens in new tab) 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, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she also tackles topics like diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, three space shuttle missions in Florida, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Her latest book, Leadership Moments from NASA, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.