SpaceX is launching OneWeb's satellites after Russia drops out

Erstwhile space rivals are becoming allies in the new space race.
Brad Bergan
Russia lowering its Soyuz rocket (left), and a depiction of space internet satellites (right)1, 2

The core of the second space race revolves around the notion of moving commercial interests into space.

In the 21st century, that means digital infrastructure. After all, no modern business will get far without a seamless connection to the global marketplace.

This is why OneWeb — with $2.7 billion in investments on the line after it was acquired by the U.K. government and Bharti Global in 2020 — is following SpaceX's lead by sending a constellation of communications satellites to space. Up to now, more than 420 OneWeb satellites successfully entered orbit — all aboard Russian-built Soyuz rockets, and operated via the French company, Arianespace.

But, in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, demanded that OneWeb's satellites not be used for military purposes. OneWeb refused, so Russia removed all 36 satellites due for launch from its Soyuz rocket on March 4, 2022. But now OneWeb has found another means to send its latest batch into space.

Elon Musk's SpaceX has entered an agreement with OneWeb, with a launch date sometime this year, according to a Monday press release from OneWeb.

This might seem bizarre considering prior disagreements between SpaceX and OneWeb — namely, an alleged "close call" between the companies' orbiting satellites. But it looks like Starlink satellites and OneWeb satellites will both be inserted into low-Earth orbit by SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets.

OneWeb's fleet of satellites will achieve full deployment

"The first launch with SpaceX is anticipated in 2022 and will add to OneWeb's total in-orbit constellation that currently stands at 428 satellites, or 66 percent of the fleet," reads the press release from OneWeb, which also describes the firm's forthcoming network as a high-speed, low-latency system.

"We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision for the boundless potential of space," says Neil Masterson, CEO of OneWeb, in the release. "With these launch plans in place, we're on track to finish building out our full fleet of satellites and deliver robust, fast, secure connectivity around the globe."

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And OneWeb has already activated its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite services above the 50th parallel and higher on the globe, which means its coverage could overlap with SpaceX's Starlink offerings. But in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, even market rivalry isn't enough to keep the two firms from joining forces.

Russia is pushing its space business to the West

Ashlee Vance, author of a biography on Elon Musk, titled: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, commented on this development. "Putin is obliterating Russia's space program while sending tons of new business to SpaceX," tweeted Vance, on the news of OneWeb pivoting to SpaceX's launch services, in the wake of Russia dropping out of the running.

Vance's commentary is apt — just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to cross into Ukraine earlier this month, the chief of Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin intimated that Russia might part ways with the International Space Station. "If you block cooperation with us, who will save the International Space Station from on uncontrolled deorbit and fall into the United States or Europe?" tweeted Rogozin.

As a generic taunt, Rogozin's tweet doesn't tread much water, but taken literally, it could mean that Russia might separate its Progress vehicle — which provides the primary source of thrust for the ISS — from the station. While plans are underway to find an alternative source of thrust, if Progress detached and no one did anything, it would only be a matter of time before the ISS plunged into the Earth's atmosphere, burning up in hot plasma, with dangerous debris potentially raining down on communities below, on the surface of Earth.

But lucky for OneWeb, it doesn't need Russia's help to continue its operations in low-Earth orbit (LEO). But partnering with SpaceX might be a surprise to some, since the two firms weren't always on the same page.

Russia's demand isn't a big surprise, but it will hurt its space industry

In April of 2021, OneWeb officials said they were forced to move one of their satellites to prevent a close call with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. That specific OneWeb satellite was called OneWeb-0178, and was one of only 36 in space at the time from the firm. Launched atop one of Russia's Soyuz rockets from the Vostochny Cosmodrome, it was at first expected to come within 280 miles of a SpaceX's Starlink satellite.

This was later updated by the U.S. Space Force's 18th Space Control Squadron (SPCS), which suggested that the two satellites would come within 200 ft of one another, creating a 1.3 percent chance of collision, on April 3. Upon a second pass, less than two hours later, OneWeb instructed its satellite to perform an avoidance maneuver, just to be safe. SpaceX collaborated, and no collisions were recorded.

Rational self-interest - But now, with SpaceX and OneWeb using the same launch system, there might be a much greater chance of avoiding even the risk of close calls — since the task of physically inserting both firms' communications satellites will fall under SpaceX's watch. As for Russia — right or wrong, it's in the nation's rational self-interest to decline to launch satellites that might be used by foreign militaries against it. During one of its many wars around the world, the United States would never launch a satellite intended to help its enemies resist invasion or occupation. But the fact remains: the move is the latest blow struck to Russia's world-class space program.

This was developing news about OneWeb signing a deal with SpaceX for the latter to launch the former's communications satellites into LEO, and was regularly updated as new information became available.

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