SpaceX launched a second batch of OneWeb internet satellites late Monday, helping the London-based company fill out its orbital constellation after Russia blocked planned Soyuz launches last year in the wake of western sanctions.
Liftoff from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station came on time at 11:50 p.m. EST, lighting up the overnight sky with a brilliant torrent of fiery exhaust. Eight minutes later, twin sonic booms rattled windows across Florida’s Space Coast as the reusable first stage descended to touchdown on a nearby landing pad.
SpaceX had planned to launch another Falcon 9 rocket overnight, this one from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, to put 51 more Starlink internet relay stations into orbit, but bad weather forced a 24-hour delay.
But it was clear sailing in Florida, and the Falcon 9’s second stage, carrying 40 OneWeb satellites, executed two engine firings to reach an initial 370-mile-high orbit tilted 87 degrees to the equator.
The satellites then were deployed sequentially over about half an hour. They’ll use on-board thrusters to reach their operational altitude of about 745 miles.
Operating in multiple orbital planes, OneWeb satellites will relay data between customers and ground stations around the world, providing global broadband connectivity for government agencies, companies, internet service providers and other users. The British government is a partial owner of OneWeb and uses its services for military communications.
OneWeb relied on Russian Soyuz rockets for the company’s first 13 launches, but preparations for the 14th were called off shortly before a launch last March in response to western sanctions imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russia demanded that OneWeb sever ties with the British military. When the company refused, Russia confiscated the 36 satellites awaiting launch, throwing OneWeb’s business plans into disarray.
Faced with a major setback in its schedule, OneWeb built replacement satellites and arranged a flight last October aboard an Indian GLSV Mark 3 rocket. SpaceX also agreed to launch OneWeb satellites and the California rocket builder put 40 into orbit last December, boosting OneWeb’s constellation to 504.
While SpaceX is launching thousands of Starlink internet satellites — 3,666 have been launched to date — OneWeb plans a fleet of “just” 648 relay stations operating at higher altitudes, which enables global connectivity using fewer spacecraft.
“We have very good relation with SpaceX in general,” Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb’s chief technology officer, told Spaceflight Now before the first Falcon 9 flight. “We’re not competing in the same markets; this is about, really, cooperation.”
Three more launches are planned to complete OneWeb’s constellation: two aboard Falcon 9s and one atop another Indian GSLV Mark 3.