London-based OneWeb has successfully deployed a further 34 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, to join its growing orbital constellation. These units join the 70 already in orbit, increasing the constellation to more than 10% of its final 600 vessel goal. The launch, which took place last Saturday, was unfortunately overshadowed by job losses at OneWeb and rumors of bankruptcy filings.
A successful LEO launch
Last Saturday, OneWeb’s next 34 LEO satellites were successfully placed in orbit, joining the 70 vessels already in the skies above Earth. The company worked again with Arianespace to launch the batch, which were delivered to orbit aboard a Soyuz launch vehicle.
Operating under flight number ST28, the rocket took off at 22:06 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. OneWeb confirmed signal acquisition with all of the 34 vehicles the next day, March 22nd.
Our satellites separated from the rocket in nine batches, as planned. We’ve confirmed signal acquisition for all 34 satellites.
— OneWeb (@OneWeb) March 22, 2020Advertisement:
With much of the world in lockdown and very little happening in the space industry generally, it was something of a surprise to see this launch go ahead. As reported by Via Satellite, OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel acknowledged the current situation, saying,
“In these unprecedented times following the global outbreak of COVID-19, people around the world find themselves trying to continue their lives and work online. We see the need for OneWeb, greater now more than ever before.
“High-quality connectivity is the lifeline to enabling people to work, continue their education, stay up to date on important healthcare information and stay meaningfully connected to one another. The crisis has demonstrated the imperative need for connectivity everywhere and has exposed urgent shortcomings in many organizations’ connectivity capabilities. Our satellite network is poised to fill in many of these critical gaps in the global communications infrastructure.”
This, the third launch from OneWeb, takes its orbital fleet to a total of 74 vessels. The first six were launched back in 2019, while the first large batch of 34 were sent up just last month. Two launches in six weeks is good going by anyone’s record, and an achievement that is no doubt thanks to OneWeb’s mass production plant in Florida.
Workers laid off
Even before the rocket launched, rumors were circulating that OneWeb was feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic more than most. In a report by TechCrunch, OneWeb confirmed that around 10% of its workforce had already been laid off. In a statement to TechCrunch, it said,
“The OneWeb launch is going ahead on Saturday with more launches planned later in the year; however, like others, we are impacted by the global health and economic crisis and we need to dynamically adjust our workforce.
“Unfortunately, we think it is inevitable that there will be delays to our launch schedule and satellite manufacturing due to increasing travel restrictions and the disruption of supply chains globally. Therefore, we made the difficult decision to eliminate some roles and responsibilities as we work to focus on core operations. We are sorry to have had to take this step and we’re doing everything we can to support those affected.”
Even more worrying, OneWeb was reported by Bloomberg to be contemplating filing for bankruptcy protection, so severe is its current cash crunch. That’s despite almost $3bn being invested in the company by SoftBank.
While the full scale of the COVID-19 outbreak is not yet known, it is sparing no sector of the economy. It remains to be seen who comes out the other side unscathed.
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