SpaceX Launches Third Batch of 40 OneWeb Satellites

SpaceX launched a third payload of 40 OneWeb satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on March 9, 2023. OneWeb is a London-based satellite Internet service provider.

With the latest launch, OneWeb’s Internet-providing constellation has 582 operational satellites in orbit. It plans to launch as many as 650 satellites.

SpaceX used a Falcon 9 first stage booster for the thirteenth time with this launch. It returned to Cape Canaveral in a controlled descent that probably feels routine for SpaceX employees by now. This landing marks SpaceX’s 177th successful recovery of a first stage rocket.

The second stage reached its target orbit and began releasing the satellites an hour after launch. It took slightly more than half an hour to deploy them all. The satellites will maneuver to their target orbit at a 745-mile altitude under their own power.

OneWeb became one company left scrambling for alternative launch services when the Western world hit Russia with sanctions due to the invasion of Ukraine. Russia seized some OneWeb satellites that were being prepared for launch on a Soyuz rocket when OneWeb refused to end its relationship with the British government. A British sovereign fund is part of a consortium that bought OneWeb out of bankruptcy.

If you remember that Richard Branson’s Virgin Group was involved in OneWeb, you’re right. The Virgin Group once owned a stake in OneWeb and originally planned to have its aerospace subsidiaries provide launch services for the satellites.

Coca-Cola also once invested in OneWeb. Public statements from Coca-Cola and OneWeb implied that Internet access could lead to greater employment by disadvantaged demographics like women in less developed countries. The better employment opportunities provided by Internet access could lead to more soft drinks sold.

OneWeb reached out to international companies like SpaceX despite a previous dispute over an incident in which a OneWeb satellite allegedly nearly collided with one of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites during launch. SpaceX denied it. Despite the dispute, CEO Elon Musk said the company would treat OneWeb like any other customer.

OneWeb also launched some of its satellites on a rocket built by a launch provider in India. That launch sparked the dispute by launching some of OneWeb’s satellites near a group of Starlink satellites. SpaceX claims it accounted for the launch while managing that satellite group.

Starlink currently has more than four thousand satellites in orbit and frequently launches more. However, it focuses on a market that mostly includes individual consumers and businesses. More recently, it created plans to provide services for airlines that provide in-flight Internet service, maritime applications ranging from private boats to oil rigs, and large vehicles like buses and RVs.

OneWeb plans to primarily serve the maritime, aviation, and land-based mobility markets. Despite the past dispute that highlighted one of the risks of having thousands of satellites in orbit, it unbent enough to hire SpaceX to conduct four launches of its satellites after the falling-out with Russia.

SpaceX conducted two of the launches in December 2022 and January 2023. It launched the third of four launches on March 9 and will conduct the final one later this year.