OneWeb launch completes space internet project – BBC News

  • By Jonathan Amos
  • BBC science correspondent
Image caption,

The satellites completing the network have carried India’s largest rocket into orbit

London-based company OneWeb has launched the latest set of satellites it needs to provide a broadband Internet connection anywhere on Earth.

The 36 spacecraft boarded an Indian LVM3 rocket from the Sriharikota spaceport in Andhra Pradesh.

Their deployment 450 km above the planet brings the total constellation in orbit of OneWeb to 618.

It has been less than three years since the UK government made the decision to buy OneWeb after bankruptcy.

It was considered controversial at the time; arguments raged over whether this was a fair use of taxpayers’ money.

But since the purchase, OneWeb has managed to attract significant additional investments and is already planning a new generation of satellites.

“This is the most significant milestone in OneWeb’s history as we reach the satellites needed for global coverage. For several years we have remained focused on our commitment to deliver a network that delivers connectivity to our customers and the communities that need it most. ,” said OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson.

It will take a few months for Sunday’s batch of satellites to be tested and arrive in the right part of the sky (at an altitude of 1,200km), but when they’re in place OneWeb will have the facility to provide a global communications service.

Only one other organization in the world is flying more satellites in space today — and it’s OneWeb’s main competitor: the Starlink system run by Elon Musk.

Unlike the US entrepreneur’s network, OneWeb does not sell broadband connections directly to the individual user. Its customers, mainly, are the telecommunications companies that provide this Internet service. They could also use the connectivity to integrate or expand infrastructure into their mobile phone networks.

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Each satellite weighs about 150 kg. The next generation will be bigger and more powerful

The OneWeb system will require the ground infrastructure necessary to command and control all satellites and connect them to the Internet, but this too is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2023.

The satellite enterprise has been in the making for a decade. Planned as a $6 billion project, it ran into economic troubles in early 2020 and sought the protection of US bankruptcy laws until a buyer was found. At that time, it had only launched 74 satellites.

With its debts cleared, OneWeb then moved quickly to build out the network and secure larger investments. It is currently working on a merger plan with Paris-based Eutelsat, known for distributing thousands of TV channels worldwide.

UK Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan said: “The completion of the low Earth orbit constellation is hugely significant for both OneWeb and the wider UK sector.

“We have invested in OneWeb’s vision of bridging the global digital divide and our thriving space sector is turning the UK into the perfect base for like-minded companies to realize their stratospheric potential.”

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The system will fly 49 satellites on 12 aircraft, with spares ready for launch

OneWeb has made the UK a major space player.

The number of satellites in the constellation required a major effort by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, which is the UK’s licensing agency for space activities.

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All ground infrastructure should be in place by the end of the year

“We play a significant oversight role, to make sure their satellites are all healthy and performing within the limits that OneWeb has set and that we’ve agreed to,” explained Colin Macleod, the authority’s head of space regulation.

“Our team has regular meetings at the OneWeb headquarters in White City. All of their engineers sit in a room where they present what they are doing, and if they have any risks or problems, they will tell us about the solutions so that our engineers are comfortable with their actions,” he told BBC News.

Security is paramount. The region of the sky where OneWeb spacecraft travel – from 450km altitude up to 1,200km – is becoming increasingly congested, and the CAA wants assurance that the constellation has flown responsibly.

Much of the operation needs to be automated, and command and control software has had to scale rapidly over the past three years.

image source, Talking James

Image caption,

The flat antennas orientate themselves electronically to connect with satellites in the sky

Sunday’s launch brought the number of satellites in space from 582 to 618.

In May, another 15 will ascend to serve as in-orbit spares. These will be joined by a demonstrator spacecraft that will test the technologies of the future.

OneWeb plans to expand its network over the next few years to include larger and more powerful spacecraft. But contrary to earlier suggestions, the constellation will likely now be kept below 1,000 individual satellites.

The next generation, however, will provide ancillary services, such as signals that allow users to fix their position on the earth’s surface or to know the precise time (a service similar to those currently provided by satellite navigation systems such as GPS and Galileo).

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OneWeb intends to merge its businesses with Eutelsat, headquartered in Paris

The core business will remain connectivity.

OneWeb has a series of flat panel antennas coming to market for its customers very soon.

Unlike traditional steerable antennas, these units electronically track satellites across the sky to maintain data links.

One such antenna, manufactured by Kymeta, was recently tested on Mount Snowdon in Wales to provide mountain rescue teams with stable broadband communications where there was previously no network availability.

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