A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket boosted 40 OneWeb broadband relay satellites into orbit Thursday, helping the London-based company expand its fleet in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, western sanctions and Russia's subsequent cancellation of previously planned Soyuz launches.
Roaring to life at 5:27 p.m. EST, the Falcon 9 streaked away to the south from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, boosting the OneWeb satellites into an initial polar orbit. The 325-pound relay stations were deployed in three batches starting about one hour after liftoff.
The Falcon 9's first stage, meanwhile, completed its fourth flight with a double sonic boom and a picture-perfect return to landing on a concrete pad at the nearby Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It was the company's 55th launch so far this year, its 188th Falcon 9 flight overall, and its 154th successful booster recovery.
While SpaceX's fast-growing Starlink system also provides space-based broadband internet services, Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb's chief technology officer, had nothing but praise for the California rocket builder, saying the two companies are targeting different segments of the data communications marketplace.
"It's incredible what SpaceX can achieve in such a short amount of time," he told Spaceflight Now. "The launch people are really focused on getting the job done. We have very good relations with SpaceX in general. We're not competing in the same markets, this is about, really, cooperation."
While SpaceX is launching thousands of Starlink internet satellites, OneWeb plans a fleet of "just" 648 higher-altitude relay stations. With Thursday's launch, the constellation grew to 504 satellites, with four more launches planned to complete the fleet — three aboard Falcon 9s and one atop an Indian GSLV Mark 3 rocket.
Released into an initial 373-mile-high orbit tilted 87 degrees to the equator, the 40 satellites launched Thursday will use onboard xenon ion thrusters to reach their operational altitude of about 745 miles.
OneWeb already was providing service to government agencies, businesses and internet service providers in Alaska, Canada and northern Europe. Thursday's flight was "very, very important for us because it's going to allow us to increase significantly the coverage of our service," Ladovaz said.
"Basically, with this launch, we'll be able to cover ... the entire United States and up (north) and half of Australia down and South America."
It hasn't been easy.
Last March, OneWeb was gearing up to launch 36 satellites aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket when the Ukraine invasion triggered harsh western sanctions. In retaliation, Russia demanded that OneWeb cut its ties with the British government, which is a partial owner of the company.
OneWeb refused, and Russia confiscated the satellites awaiting launch at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb then scrambled to build replacements and booked its next flight on an Indian GSLV that successfully flew in October. Thursday's SpaceX launch was the second since OneWeb and Russia parted ways.
One silver lining to the launch shuffle: the team that builds the OneWeb satellites at a small factory just outside the Kennedy Space Center did not have to watch the Thursday flight on the internet. For the first time, they could watch their satellites fly in person.
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia."
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