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OneWeb adds 36 satellites to revived constellation

Less than a month after emerging from bankruptcy, OneWeb resumed its campaign to provide global satellite internet access today with the successful launch and deployment of 36 satellites.

The satellites were sent into low Earth orbit by a Soyuz rocket that lifted off from Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East at 12:26 GMT (4:26 a.m. PT). Nine batches of satellites were dropped off in their target orbits over the course of nearly four hours, and OneWeb confirmed signal acquisition for all 36 satellites.

This was the first fully commercial launch from Russia’s Vostochny complex. Europe’s Arianespace consortium managed launch logistics.

Today’s operation brings OneWeb’s constellation to 110 satellites, with hundreds more due for launch in the months ahead. OneWeb says it’s back on track to provide broadband data services to customers in northern latitudes — including Alaska, Britain, Canada and northern Europe — during 2021, with global service to follow in 2022.

OneWeb’s prime rivals in the market for satellite internet services from low Earth orbit are SpaceX, which has already launched nearly 1,000 satellites and is offering limited beta service; Telesat, a Canadian satellite operator targeting the start of service in 2022; and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is aiming for a debut in the mid-2020s.

In March, OneWeb’s financing plans were stalled by the coronavirus pandemic’s economic effects, forcing the London-based venture into bankruptcy. Months later, Bharti Global Ltd. — the umbrella company for Bharti Airtel, one of India’s top telecom companies — teamed up with the British government on a $1 billion-plus bid to purchase OneWeb. The deal was sealed in November, with former Thomson Reuters executive Neil Masterson taking over as CEO.

“It’s inspiring to be part of a fast-returning organization refocused on our mission of bringing connectivity to everyone, everywhere,” Masterson said in a post-launch news release. “Each launch moves us closer to our goal of building this much needed global, secure, trusted, enterprise-grade broadband network, powered from space.”

Sunil Bharti Mittal, the founder and chairman of Bharti Enterprises, said today’s launch was “one of many steps we have taken to operationalize one of the world’s first LEO constellations, which clearly demonstrates we are on our way to achieving our mission.”

Earlier this month, Mittal estimated that OneWeb would need to raise $2.5 billion to bring the constellation to its initial operational complement of 650 satellites. He said half of that amount has already been arranged between Bharti and the British government. “I don’t see raising capital for this wonderful project for the balance amount to be any issue,” he was quoted as saying.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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