October 25, 2022
NEW DELHI – India successfully placed 36 satellites in space for a British communications firm on Sunday, consolidating its attempts to occupy a void created in the global commercial satellite launch market as customers steer clear of Russian launch vehicles.
The satellites went up on a rocket launched by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) from Sriharikota island in the Bay of Bengal, near the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
Sunday’s mission was the first for London-headquartered OneWeb after its launch of satellites from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan, was called off in March because of tensions arising from its invasion of Ukraine the previous month.
Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency, had said the launch of 36 OneWeb satellites could go ahead only if the firm guaranteed they would not be used for military purposes. It also insisted that the British government divest its stake in the company.
Instead of conceding, the firm on March 3 suspended its six upcoming launches from Baikonur Cosmodrome. All previous OneWeb satellite launches were carried through Russian Soyuz rockets, with the first batch taking off in February 2019.
Sunday’s launch by Isro marked a major milestone for India. It was the first commercial mission undertaken by its largest and most powerful rocket – the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III, also known as LVM3.
“We have accomplished the orbit very accurately, now the rocket is in its intended orbit,” Isro chairman S. Somanath told the media following its launch shortly after midnight on Sunday.
“Fantastic news as we are delighted to report we have made contact with all 36 satellites,” added OneWeb in a tweet later on Sunday. The firm partnered NewSpace India Limited, Isro’s commercial arm, in April to launch its satellites.
OneWeb is setting up a global communications network powered by 648 low Earth orbit satellites to facilitate high-speed, low-latency Internet connectivity. Sunday’s launch takes the number of its satellites in the required constellation to more than 70 per cent, with further launches in 2022 and 2023 expected to complete the setup.
According to a Bloomberg report in September, OneWeb took a US$229 million (S$324.1 million) write-down after Russia scuppered its launch plans and took 36 of its satellites hostage “indefinitely” in March. Since that fallout, the firm has finalised deals with American launch service providers SpaceX and Relativity Space.
Isro’s Dr Somanath recently told Indo-Asian News Service that the organisation plans to ramp up production of its LVM3 rockets to four or five a year as it seeks a greater share of the global satellite launch market valued at US$31.9 billion.
“There is a shortage of commercial satellite launch vehicles for putting into orbit multiple satellites to form a constellation. The Russian rockets are not in consideration now… Hence India has a slot now,” he added.
Another set of 36 OneWeb satellites are expected to be launched on the LVM3 in the first half of 2023.
— ISRO (@isro) October 23, 2022
Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology at the Observer Research Foundation, said Isro has “huge potential” to capture a greater share of the international satellite launch market, having expanded its capability to launch heavier and bigger payloads with the LMV3 rocket.
“Traditionally, India has looked at launching only small satellites but has now begun to show signs of sophistication and capacity to engage in bigger launches and Sunday’s launch is in that sense a huge success,” she told The Straits Times.
She also noted that Isro had in recent years been engaging more effectively with the larger space community, including other space agencies and the private sector, and creating outreach units such as NewSpace India Limited in 2019. “It does show that India is keen to get into the global commercial space market in a bigger way and wants to capture a bigger segment,” she added.