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OneWeb: London start-up launches first big batch of satellites

By Jonathan Amos
BBC Science Correspondent

Published
image copyrightROSCOSMOS
image captionThis year will see Soyuz rockets launching for OneWeb on a near monthly basis

The UK-based OneWeb company has sent 34 satellites into orbit on a single Soyuz rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

The start-up is building a mega-constellation in the sky to deliver broadband internet to all corners of the globe.

Six spacecraft were lofted in 2019 to prove the technology, but this year will see big batches of platforms going up on a near monthly basis.

The aim is to have the full network in operation by the end of 2021.

OneWeb is in a race with a number of other companies that want to provide the same kind of service.

image copyrightONEWEB
image captionArtwork: The satellites have been built in partnership with Airbus

California entrepreneur Elon Musk is developing his Starlink constellation which envisages thousands of connected satellites.

Likewise, the boss of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, the world's wealthiest individual, has proposed a system he calls Kuiper.

But OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel says his start-up has nothing to fear from these "100lb gorillas".

"I think they're going to do great; we're going to do great," he told BBC News.

"There's room for three or four of us. The world is a big place and the appetite for data is insatiable. This won't be a game of 'winner takes all'."

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media captionAdrian Steckel: "There's room for three or four players in this market"

The Soyuz rocket left Baikonur at 02:42 local time on Friday, 7 February (21:42 GMT on Thursday, 6 February).

Its mission was to drop its satellite batch into one of 12 planes planned for the constellation. Next month, another Soyuz will loft a further 34 spacecraft to begin populating two more planes.

Eventually, the full network will comprise 648 satellites (60 of which will be in-orbit spares ready to fill behind any failures).

It's an ambitious roll-out made possible by high volume manufacturing at a factory set up in Florida by OneWeb and the aerospace giant Airbus, who are partners on the the project.

Up to two spacecraft a day are now rolling off the production line.

But while the media are very focused on the numbers of satellites and rockets involved, these elements won't define the west London company's future success or failure.

This will depend more on the relationships OneWeb is able to establish with the telcos and other organisations that will be exploiting and distributing its internet service around the world.

image copyrightONEWEB
image captionOneWeb has a control room in west London to monitor and command the satellites

It's partly because of this that OneWeb is emphasising its "Britishness".

Although founded by an American with backing from some big international brands, the firm believes the UK association will help it obtain the "landing rights" necessary for its service to be allowed to operate in different countries.

"We consider ourselves as an international project, but we navigate in a difficult world where not everybody gets along," Mr Steckel said. "And our sense is that the UK's flag and approach allows us to have dialogue with partners that we otherwise might not have the ability to do."

Elon Musk and his SpaceX company have already entered a high cadence of launches, with 240 Starlink satellites placed in orbit since May last year. But the rapid deployment means this American project has walked first into the backlash that may ultimately confront all the coming mega-constellations.

image copyrightARIANESPACE
image captionThe Soyuz rocket can loft more than 30 satellites in one go

Astronomers have been complaining that the internet satellites are too bright. They fear that if thousands of spacecraft are put in orbit, it could seriously impede their view of the cosmos.

OneWeb has so far avoided much of the flack because until Friday's flight, it had put up only six test satellites. This could now change with the monthly roll-out.

But Mr Steckel believes his company's spacecraft won't attract the same ire.

"It's our understanding that our satellites will be less visible - one, because they're higher in the sky; and, two, because of their design. But we're engaging with the astronomical community. And that's not just PR - we really want to see what we can do."

Last month, both OneWeb and SpaceX met with European scientists for discussions at the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

image copyrightVictoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory
image captionSpaceX's Starlink satellites have been leaving streaks in telescope images

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Related Topics

  • OneWeb
  • Broadband
  • Kazakhstan
  • Space exploration
  • Communications satellites