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OneWeb revives Indian alternative to SpaceX with launch contract

sunil bharti mittal.jpg

OneWeb has revived the idea that India might launch its future satellites.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson told reporters travelling with him on a trip to visit his Indian opposite number, Narendra Modi, that OneWeb is planning launches with New Space India.

Following Johnson’s chat with reporters on his plane, OneWeb confirmed that it plans launches by New Space India “anticipated in 2022”.

The company said “the launches will add to OneWeb’s total in-orbit constellation of 428 satellites, 66% of the planned total fleet, to build a global network that will deliver high-speed, low-latency connectivity”.

Sunil Bharti Mittal (pictured), OneWeb executive chairman, said: “This is yet another historic day for collaboration in space, thanks to the shared ambition and vision of New Space India and OneWeb. This most recent agreement on launch plans adds considerable momentum to the development of OneWeb’s network, as we work together across the space industry toward our common goal of connecting communities globally.”

OneWeb said this launch contract follows a separate agreement between OneWeb and SpaceX to enable the company to resume satellite launches, after its programme was disrupted by the Russian attack on Ukraine.

Johnson in 2020 personally approved a US$500 investment in then-bankrupt OneWeb, along with a similar stake taken by Indian company Bharti. Since then, Bharti has doubled its stake to $1 billion.

The idea of an Indian launcher first appeared in October last year when the company was seeking approval in India for a licence to operate satellite services.

OneWeb previously contracted all its launches to French company Arianespace, using Soyuz rockets from Russia and mainly using Russian-controlled launch sites. However this arrangement – already fully paid for before OneWeb mark one went bust – collapsed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Since then SpaceX has agreed to launch the rest of OneWeb’s first generation of satellites. It’s not clear yet how the SpaceX deal interacts with this week’s contract with New Space India.

OneWeb has 428 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites in service of a planned first-generation fleet of 648. However, the Russians have possession of 36 US-made satellites, due to be launched in February from Baikonur as Russian troops were marching across the Ukraine border. OneWeb executives have informally written off any hope of getting them back.

Mittal, the founder of the Bharti group, has been executive chairman of OneWeb since its rescue in late 2020.

Other OneWeb shareholders are Paris-based Eutelsat – now the second biggest, with $715 million, or 22.9% – along with SoftBank with $350 million, South Korean electronics company Hanwha, with $300 million, and US-based satellite services company Hughes Network Systems with $50 million.

The UK’s stake is still $500 million, putting it in third position behind Bharti and Eutelsat.

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