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Conflict

War in Ukraine forces Starlink competitor OneWeb to use SpaceX for launches

SpaceX has entered into an agreement to start launching satellites for a competitor to Starlink.

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All is fair in love and war: For SpaceX and British satellite internet competitor, OneWeb, the saying holds true. Until the war in Ukraine, OneWeb had relied on the Russian space agency Roscosmos to help launch their hardware into space. But on Monday, March 21, the company announced it would use SpaceX rockets to continue launching satellites for its under-construction constellation.

The unusual deal enables OneWeb to get its project back on track after Russian space agency Roscosmos refused to approve further launches — by relying on its direct competitor. SpaceX, of course, runs Starlink, an under-construction internet constellation that is already being used in certain areas of the world to get online (including Ukraine).

“We thank SpaceX for their support, which reflects our shared vision for the boundless potential of space,” OneWeb CEO Neil Masterson says in a statement.

What happened?

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent international sanctions on Russian businesses, the government, and individuals, Russia hit back with sanctions of its own — and by scrapping deals, including the launch slate with OneWeb.

“With these launch plans in place, we’re on track to finish building out our full fleet of satellites and deliver robust, fast, secure connectivity around the globe,” Masterson says in the statement.

The deal is particularly odd because SpaceX will be launching satellites for a service that will likely compete with Starlink for customers. Both companies plan to offer satellite internet access with higher speeds and lower latencies than with traditional satellite internet services by putting huge constellations of satellites in a lower orbit.

In a now-deleted tweet which Inverse took a screenshot of (below), the head of Russia’s Roscosmos agency, Dmitry Rogozin, compared the move to a snake eating a rat, saying, according to a translation, that OneWeb is “in Musk’s gut.” Rogozin later tweeted back to OneWeb with the same image and a more succinct “Bon Appetit!”

According to Google Translate, the tweet reads: “Well, that's exactly how we predicted the end of OneWeb — in Musk's gut. We are waiting for the digested state of OneWeb to crawl out of there.”Twitter/screenshot

Russia’s space agency has been a feature of the ongoing conflict so far: Rogozin made threats via Twitter aimed at the International Space Station earlier this month, and the European Space Agency recently announced it would shelf a planned Mars rover launch that was supposed to partner with Russia until further notice.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why will SpaceX start launching OneWeb satellites?

OneWeb first launched a batch of six satellites from French Guiana in February 2019, using a Russian Soyuz rocket. Following this launch, the company started using the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to launch satellites.

Over the course of 13 launches thus far the company has launched 428 satellites into space. This equates to around two-thirds of the planned 648 satellites that will make up the total constellation.

In July 2020, the British government purchased a share in OneWeb, a move that helped save the company from bankruptcy — and perhaps factored into Russia’s decision to boot OneWeb. In March 2022, amid the war in Ukraine, Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin declared that OneWeb could no longer use Roscosmos’ services until the British government divested its shares in OneWeb and the company agreed its satellites would not be used for military purposes. OneWeb turned instead to SpaceX.

The new agreement means that SpaceX plans to start launching OneWeb satellites later in 2022, according to OneWeb.

This is not the first time SpaceX has launched internet satellites that do not belong to its own Starlink internet constellation. Its Falcon 9 rockets helped complete upgrades to the Iridium constellation, a project that finished in 2019.

SpaceX launching a batch of Starlink satellites.SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

What is OneWeb’s internet constellation?

OneWeb’s internet constellation is designed to offer high-speed, low-latency internet service at a price competitive with other ground-based internet services. Unlike Starlink, which primarily markets itself to individual consumers, OneWeb gears its marketing to business customers.

“There are some areas where we will compete, I suspect, particularly around serving governments, but governments will always buy more than one service,” Masterson says in a 2021 interview with CNBC.

In 2019, an early test of the constellation recorded download speeds of over 400 megabits per second and a latency of 32 milliseconds. In 2021, a subsequent test recorded speeds of 165 megabits per second down, 30 megabits per second up, and 45 milliseconds latency. This makes it comparable in speed to Starlink, but with higher latency.

What is SpaceX Starlink?

Starlink offers internet speeds of between 100 and 200 megabits per second. It also claims to offer latencies as low as 20 milliseconds. It does this through the company’s ever-expanding Starlink constellation, which currently has 2,112 satellites in orbit. The company aims to orbit the constellation at around 340 miles above Earth — a move that has courted much controversy from astronomers and others worried about the crowded night sky’s effects on the ability to do science observations from Earth.

The service costs $99 per month, plus a $499 one-off fee for the Starlink Kit. The prices don’t include shipping and taxes.

Although Starlink is aimed at consumers, SpaceX detailed a new service, called Starlink Premium, in February 2022 that purportedly offers better bandwidth availability and higher customer service priority — benefits that may be aimed at businesses or agencies. At a price of $500 per month, the service is very much aimed at those for whom reliability is paramount.