A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched a third batch of 40 OneWeb internet satellites into orbit on Thursday, helping the London-based company expand its constellation of broadband repeater stations to 582 operational spacecraft.
Another group of 36 OneWeb satellites, scheduled to launch later this month on a GSLV rocket from India, will give the company global coverage with a final SpaceX flight later this year to bring the fleet to nearly 650.
For Thursday’s flight, the Falcon 9, using a first-stage booster making its 13th flight, lifted off from Pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 2:13 p.m. EST, and sped away. on a trajectory to the southeast.
The heavily trafficked first stage propelled the rocket out of the lower atmosphere and then away to fly back to a perfect landing at the Space Force station, while the second stage continued the ascent into orbit. The landing marked the successful recovery of SpaceX’s 177th booster and 32nd at Cape Canaveral.
Meanwhile, the second stage reached its planned orbit after two engine fires and the first two 325-pound OneWeb satellites were released to fly on their own about an hour after launch. The remaining 38 were released over the next 36 minutes.
Deployed into an initial 373-mile high orbit inclined 87 degrees to the equator, the solar-powered satellites will use onboard xenon ion thrusters to reach their operating altitude of approximately 745 miles.
SpaceX and OneWeb are building space-based constellations of broadband relay satellites, but the two companies are targeting different segments of the data communications market.
SpaceX is launching thousands of low-altitude Starlink Internet satellites (4,053 have been launched to date) to provide high-speed, low-latency broadband access to consumers around the world, as well as government agencies and commercial customers.
OneWeb focuses more on the maritime, aviation, and ground mobility government/commercial markets using a much smaller number of higher altitude satellites. With Thursday’s launch, OneWeb’s constellation grew to 582 operational spacecraft.
Getting to this point has not been easy, as the company has had to weather bankruptcy and the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
OneWeb’s first 13 launches used Russian Soyuz rockets. Last March, the company was preparing for its 14th launch aboard another Soyuz when the invasion of Ukraine triggered harsh Western sanctions. In retaliation, Russia demanded that OneWeb cut its ties with the British government, which is a part owner of the company.
OneWeb refused and Russia confiscated the satellites waiting to be launched at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb then scrambled to build replacements and booked its next flight on an Indian GSLV that it successfully flew last October. SpaceX will then launch two batches of 40 OneWeb satellites in December and January.
Thursday’s launch was the third of four currently booked with SpaceX.
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