This afternoon, a rocket will send another batch of satellites into orbit above Earth in the ongoing journey to provide internet coverage from space — but these satellites aren’t part of SpaceX’s well-known Starlink project. Instead, they belong to OneWeb, which also has big dreams of bringing the world’s population online by beaming internet from the sky.
Today’s launch will be the second one for the London-based company, which launched its first six satellites nearly a year go out of South America. This time, OneWeb is going bigger, launching 34 satellites on top of a Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. It’s the first of 10 launches the company has planned this year, with each mission lofting between 30 to 36 satellites per flight.
Just like SpaceX, OneWeb is hoping to blanket the sky with low-flying satellites that can provide broadband internet coverage to customers anywhere on the ground. OneWeb has a license from the Federal Communications Commission to launch an initial constellation of 648 satellites, 588 of which will be operational with the rest being spares. It’s a much smaller footprint than SpaceX’s proposed constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites (not to mention the additional 30,000 SpaceX has also requested accommodations for).
OneWeb argues it doesn’t need as many satellites because it intends to fly its vehicles higher than SpaceX’s constellation at an altitude of 750 miles (1,200 kilometers), as opposed to 340 miles (550 kilometers). From that vantage point, each satellite can see a larger swath of the Earth, meaning fewer are needed to provide global coverage. OneWeb CEO Adrián Steckel also contends that while his company’s efforts may seem similar to those of SpaceX, the two companies are working toward different markets.
“They’re going for broadband to compete against the cable companies, like Verizon and Fios and AT&T,” says Steckel. “They want to bring you high-speed internet and also do world connectivity. We’re very focused on coverage of the entire planet and working in all sorts of countries where they may not be focused on internet.”
Both companies plan to sell user terminals to customers so that individuals can receive signals from the satellites. However, OneWeb plans to work with partners rather than sell coverage directly to individuals. That includes working with internet service distributors, local regulators, and governments to bring its full service into use. “I’m not smart enough from my office in London to figure out what we should be doing in Brazil, in South Africa, or China,” says Steckel. “We’ve got to work with people who’ve got skin in the game and know their local market.”
He says, over time, the goals of the two companies may converge, but he’s not particularly worried about what SpaceX is doing. “People want to look at us as competitors, but they’re doing something very different than we are.”
Steckel says he has been following the concerns of astronomers who argue that SpaceX’s satellites will mess up their observations of the night sky. As a result, OneWeb has been working with the American Astronomical Society and the Royal Astronomical Society to come up with strategies to mitigate the company’s impact. Steckel claims that since OneWeb’s satellites are higher, they won’t be seen with the naked eye, but they’ll still be seen by telescopes. “We’re in discussions to see how we minimize the impact,” he says. “It would be unrealistic for me to say there won’t be any impact.”
In the meantime, Steckel says the company is very much focused on the year ahead after getting out of “production hell” and finally perfecting the assembly line for the satellites. The original six satellites that OneWeb launched worked “better than expected,” according to Steckel, prompting very little changes to the design of the vehicles. “We’ve maybe changed less than 5 percent on the hardware, and what you have are mostly software updates,” he says.
One big addition to the satellites is a small magnetic plate, manufactured by Altius Space Machines, that’s meant to act as an insurance policy for OneWeb. The plate serves as a grappling “hook” and will only be needed if the OneWeb satellites break or fail in the future. That way, a future servicing satellite could approach a failed OneWeb satellite and magnetically attach via the plate. The servicer could then either fix the satellite or drag it out of orbit so that it doesn’t clutter space as dangerous space debris.
“We’re very conscious of space debris,” says Steckel. “If you think about tow trucks in space, you need to be able to grab the car. So we’re just thinking ahead.”
If today’s launch goes well, OneWeb is already looking ahead to its next launch in March. They’ll then target another one in May, followed by launches once a month thereafter. OneWeb plans to start rolling out partial coverage this year and full coverage sometime next year. In the meantime, the company is working to secure authority to launch nearly 2,000 more satellites in the future. If that happens, the company is open to working with other launch providers. “We’re looking already at purchasing launch for our second stage of satellites and we’re very open to working with SpaceX,” says Steckel.
OneWeb’s launch today is slated for 4:42PM ET. The Soyuz rocket, operated by European launch provider Arianespace, will be taking off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb plans to stream coverage of the launch starting this afternoon.