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OneWeb adds 36, faces UK criticism

December 21, 2020

By Chris Forrester

There were a few tense moments immediately prior to the launch of the giant Soyuz rocket at Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome when the countdown clock went past the ‘3-2.1-Zero’ command, but a few seconds later, the engines burst into life and the 36-satellite payload for OneWeb launched.

Some four hours after its 12.26pm (GMT) launch and the mission was judged a success and the 36 deployed satellites into their target orbits joined the rest of the OneWeb fleet. OneWeb now has 110 satellites in orbit.

But while all was going well at the Russian launch, there was controversy building in London. The Times newspaper cited numerous critics of the decision by the UK government to invest £400 million into OneWeb.

In summary, the newspaper listed various senior experts who doubted that the government would get a return on its investment. Chris Lee, who was chief scientist at the UK Space Agency (he retired in April 2020 and is now an occasional advisor to AstroSpace Solutions) told the newspaper: “The worry I have about mega constellations is that no business case has ever worked.”

The Times also references various senior officials and civil servants who advised that the investment in OneWeb was too risky. The critics include Sam Beckett, the then acting Permanent Secretary at the Dept. for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (he shifted departments in August) who wrote to his boss, Alok Sharma, warning there was a risk that the investment could be lost.

Marek Ziebart, professor of space geodesy at University College London, is another critic, saying that the proposed GPS-type navigation system promised for OneWeb’s second generation craft “is not going to work” as a stand-alone sat-nav system.  “You will spend a lot of public money and just make yourself look stupid,” he told the newspaper. “I work with people in NASA in the US Air Force and European Space Agency, with the Japanese space agency. When they saw that decision about trying to repurpose OneWeb everyone went, What? They’re nuts!  What do they think they’re doing?”

Ziebert said that OneWeb, once upon a time, was ahead of the game. The problem now is that it is being blown out of the water by Elon Musk.

In a separate lead editorial, The Times argued that the government’s decision to buying a stake in a bankrupt satellite company raised troubling questions about its approach to [spending] public money…and the decision taken was unsatisfactory. “The investment case is wafer-thin,” argued the newspaper, saying that the move had secured only about 70 British jobs.

OneWeb now has 110 satellites either in orbit or being raised to their designated orbits. It is looking to launch 648. The business is actively looking to raise more cash.

Elon Musk has more than 1,000 out of an initial planned 12,000 and is beginning to commercialise the system. Musk’s Starlink company is actively looking to raise more cash.


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