SpaceX launched 40 OneWeb satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket on December 8, 2022. The launch was part of OneWeb’s reshuffling of launch contracts amid Europe’s sanctions against Russia. It had previously planned to launch the satellites on a Russian Soyuz rocket.
In a move that must seem routine by now, SpaceX landed the first stage booster. This was the fourth flight for this particular booster. Previous launches included a Cargo Dragon carrying valuable cargo for the International Space Station, a communications satellite for EutelSat, and some of SpaceX’s own Starlink satellites. (That last was not likely to be a way to rub the bigger Starlink constellation in OneWeb’s face, though.)
Some of SpaceX’s first stage boosters launched as many as eleven times. The Falcon 9 set a record for the highest number of launches of a single rocket model in a calendar year in October 2022, when SpaceX launched its 48th mission for 2022. With the launch of the OneWeb satellites, SpaceX has conducted 55 launches this year, one of them being a Falcon Heavy launch with a classified payload for the USSF.
SpaceX had previously disputed a report that a Starlink satellite nearly caused a collision during a prior launch of OneWeb satellites. Starlink satellites are capable of maneuvering to avoid collisions with other assets or pieces of “space junk.” Despite the past dispute, SpaceX promised to treat OneWeb like any other customer.
Unlike Starlink, which already has more than 3,000 satellites in orbit, OneWeb only plans to launch 648 Internet-providing satellites. With this launch, OneWeb has now successfully deployed more than 500 satellites. This was OneWeb’s first deployment of satellites from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
OneWeb was not the only European organization to have to reshuffle its plans in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s sanctions. The European Space Agency (ESA) had to suspend plans to launch the Mars probe ExoMars on a Russian rocket. ESA also tapped SpaceX as one of a few international launch providers that could launch hardware. It selected SpaceX to launch the Euclid Space Telescope and a follow-up mission for NASA’s DART, which tested a method for redirecting potentially dangerous asteroids.
Russia and Roscosmos reacted poorly to the sanctions against the Russian aerospace industry, threatening to deorbit the International Space Station and even threatening Elon Musk. Musk responded by trying to joke about it — a joke that seemed to fall flat with his mother.
Russia also threatened Starlink satellites and actually did attempt to jam or conduct cyberattacks against them. However, SpaceX has beefed up their security enough to impress the Pentagon.
Former Roscosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin has since been removed from his position, possibly indicating that the Russians had issues with him besides his pattern of bluster aimed at Musk and NASA. However, Russia may not be happy with the fact that it does not have a monopoly on launching hardware for paying clients that include OneWeb and the ESA.