WASHINGTON — OneWeb, the broadband megaconstellation company whose rollout plans were disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, expects to resume rollouts later this year, an executive said June 23.
Maurizio Vanotti, vice president of space infrastructure development and partnerships at OneWeb, said at the Secure World Foundation and UK Space Agency’s Fourth Summit for Space Sustainability that new launch agreements with SpaceX and NewSpace India Ltd. (NSIL) would allow companies to launch the remaining satellites of its first-generation system by Q2 2023.
“Our plan is to be back on the launch pad in the fourth quarter after the summer and to complete the constellation lineup by the second quarter of next year,” he said. After this latest launch, it will take several months for the satellites to reach their operational orbit, he added.
“By the end of next year, we will be operating 24/7 around the world,” he said.
OneWeb once expected to complete its Soyuz rocket constellation by the end of this year. However, their plans were turned on their head after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions. OneWeb officially suspended launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome after rejecting conditions imposed by Roscosmos, which included no military use of the satellites and the sale of the UK government’s stake in the company.
OneWeb announced a launch agreement with SpaceX less than three weeks later, but neither company gave details about the agreement. Specifically, Vanotti said the agreement, negotiated in less than three days, applies to “few Falcon 9 launches.” The companies had previously declined to say how many launches were included in the deal.
OneWeb announced on April 20 that it had signed an agreement with NSIL, the commercial arm of Indian space agency ISRO, to launch OneWeb satellites. Vanotti confirmed that NSIL will launch these satellites on the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 3, which is the most powerful version of the GSLV but has not been launched since 2019. He did not disclose how many launches this contract includes.
“Considering the geopolitical situation, I would say that with great support from both SpaceX and the Indian Space Agency, we have seen an incredible turnaround,” he said.
Commitment to space sustainability
Vanotti appeared on a panel alongside Julie Zoller, head of global regulatory affairs for Amazon’s Kuiper broadband constellation project, where both emphasized their commitment to space sustainability.
“Sustainability in space is crucial for Project Kuiper. That’s a priority from day one,” said Zoller, citing as an example the company’s plans to tightly tolerate the satellites’ orbits and actively de-orbit them at the end of their lives.
“We take our responsibility for the space commons very seriously,” Vanotti said, emphasizing the company’s commitment to the reliability of its satellites to ensure they can be deorbited at the end of their lives. The high orbit of the OneWeb satellites means they will not reenter within 25 years, as recommended by current in-orbit debris reduction guidelines, using atmospheric drag alone.
OneWeb has also worked to ensure that its satellites can be deorbited by other spacecraft should their onboard propulsion fail. However, Zoller said there are no similar plans for Project Kuiper satellites, partly because those satellites are in lower orbits, between 590 and 630 kilometers. “We do not hire a third party to do active debris removal. We are the active debris remover,” she said, claiming the satellites could be out of orbit within 10 years without propulsion.
Both also said they are working on another element of space sustainability by reducing the brightness of their satellites to limit their interference with astronomy. For Amazon, that includes testing two prototype satellites that the company plans to launch later this year on an ABL Space Systems RS1 rocket. Zoller said one of the two satellites will be fitted with a sunshade to prevent sunlight from reflecting off parts of the satellite, similar to the “VisorSat” concept SpaceX is using on some of its Starlink satellites.
“We can compare and contrast the difference between a shielded and an unshielded satellite in our very first launch,” she said. “We look forward to getting data on this and figuring out what we can do next.”
Vanotti said OneWeb is in contact with astronomical groups in the United States and the United Kingdom and has embarked on an “active observing campaign” to monitor the brightness of its satellites over the past year. These observations help refine a model of the satellites. “We will use this tool to optimize the design of our future generation of satellites,” he said, “to have less impact on dark skies.”