European launch provider Arianespace has been awarded a contract worth up to US$1.5 billion to launch most of the initial 648 microsatellite internet-communications Ku-band constellation for OneWeb. The launches will take place on 21 Soyuz-ST rockets over a two-year period from the Soyuz launch site at Baikonur near Tyuratam in Kazakhstan, and from the Sinnamary launch site near Kourou in French Guiana.
It is envisaged that up to 36 spacecraft at a time will be placed into an orbital plane on each of the Soyuz ST (or Soyuz 2) launch vehicles. The spacecraft will be launched initially into a 500km low Earth orbit and raise themselves using electric propulsion into their 1,200km operational orbits.
Before the main batch of 20 Soyuz missions are launched, a single Soyuz flight will carry 10 spacecraft into orbit for in-orbit testing in late 2017.
While the two main launch sites have been selected, launches from the Russian spaceport at Plesetsk are also a possibility. The contract includes five further Soyuz flights on option, plus options to launch on three Ariane 6 rockets.
Separate to this, a contract has been signed with Virgin Galactic to provide 39 replenishment launches carrying between one and three satellites into orbit using the air-launched LauncherOne smallsat launch vehicle.
The UK Channel Islands-based OneWeb, which is led by communications entrepreneur Greg Wyler, has raised US$500 million from investors including Virgin Group (which was already an investor), Airbus (which is building the microsatellites) as well as Bharti Enterprises, Totalplay Communications, Intelsat and Coca Cola. They join Qualcomm which was already an investor.