(Bloomberg) — SpaceX successfully launched 40 satellites for competing communications company OneWeb on Thursday.
It’s the first of three planned missions the unlikely collaborators are set to perform over the coming months despite their separate efforts to build megaconstellations that will beam broadband Internet coverage to Earth.
OneWeb, which is building an initial constellation of 648 satellites in low Earth Orbit, had originally contracted to launch all of the company’s satellites on Russian Soyuz rockets. But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, then-head of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, vowed not to launch the remaining satellites unless OneWeb promised not to use the spacecraft for military purposes. He further required that the British government divested its stake in the company.
At the time, a Russian Soyuz rocket was on the launchpad in Kazakhstan preparing to launch the latest batch of OneWeb satellites. OneWeb and its stakeholders refused to agree to the demands. Ultimately, Roscosmos decided to roll back the rocket, a move that cost OneWeb $230 million and sent them searching for new launch providers.
“I was confident actually earlier this year that we would find a way to recommence launches,” Neil Masterson, OneWeb’s CEO, told Bloomberg. “And I thought that we would find a way to do something with SpaceX.”
OneWeb secured launch agreements with SpaceX, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and startup Relativity. Thursday’s launch, which took off at 5:27p.m. local time from Florida, brings OneWeb’s total satellites in orbit to 502, which gets the company to 80% coverage of the world, according to Masterson. OneWeb’s next two dedicated launches with SpaceX are planned through the spring of next year, in addition to another launch with ISRO. Masterson says those missions will get OneWeb close to its full constellation, giving the company global coverage. There will also be another rideshare mission with SpaceX that will include Iridium satellites.
The size of OneWeb’s constellation pales in comparison to that of SpaceX, which has launched more than 3,500 satellites into orbit so far. Both companies have started rolling out services to customers, with OneWeb providing coverage in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Britain. OneWeb also recently agreed to a $3.4 billion merger with Eutelsat, with plans to launch a second generation of less expensive, but more advanced satellites after the first constellation is complete.
Masterson acknowledges there will be some overlap between OneWeb’s customer base and SpaceX’s, but he sees the two constellations as different kinds of products. Terms of the deal between the two companies are confidential.
“It’s such a big market growing so quickly, there’s certainly room for the both of us, where we do compete. And in many cases, I think our services are highly complementary, actually,” Masterson said.