Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the world’s sanctions to the country, led the country to refuse to launch OneWeb satellites on a Soyuz rocket unless OneWeb agreed to almost unreachable terms. Thankfully, the company has now found a somewhat unlikely ally in SpaceX, which has its own Starlink satellites that compete with OneWeb.
That’s not to say OneWeb had much of a choice. From the moment the launch of OneWeb satellites on Soyuz seemed unlikely, discussions online have been “what other company can support the extra launches on short notice,” and the clear answer has been SpaceX.
Other launch companies lack a lot of the flexibility to pick up the satellites on such short notice (as OneWeb had hoped to finish the constellation this year, though its first launch with SpaceX is scheduled for this year).
SpaceX has numerous reusable Falcon 9 boosters, and it’s still making more, meanwhile all of ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets are already accounted for, and getting a 2022 launch on Vulcan wouldn’t be possible.
OneWeb already has 428 satellites in orbit, or 66% of its fleet.
OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson said of the launch agreement:
We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision for the boundless potential of space. 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.
Starlink vs. OneWeb
While SpaceX’s Starlink satellites and OneWeb’s satellites are quite similar in their goal to provide high-speed satellite internet around the world the two companies have taken a somewhat different approach, the systems are rather different. For one, SpaceX has far more Starlink satellites in a lower orbit. While SpaceX has over 2,000 satellites in orbit (and more launching) to an altitude of around 550km, OneWeb will have a total of 648 at 1,200 km. The higher altitude satellites mean each satellite covers more area, and less are needed, but it also means that each satellite must be capable of providing internet to those much larger regions.
SpaceX’s Starlink also targets consumers more directly. If you need internet in a remote location, you order Starlink, the user terminal is shipped to your home, and you set it up yourself. OneWeb, meanwhile, is more directly targeting the government, aviation, maritime, and enterprise needs. Starlink will also enter these markets, with Starlink Business and work on mobile Starlink terminals made specifically for these mobile applications, but individual consumers make up the vast majority of SpaceX’s customers.
It’s good to see that SpaceX was able to step in and fill OneWeb’s sudden and immediate need for a new launch provider even if its subsidiary is a competitor.