Geopolitics has inadvertently revealed its far-reaching impact during the Russia-Ukraine war. OneWeb, a London based satellite company, held off its launch of 36 satellites after a forced suspension of the use of Russian Soyuz rockets. Russia’s loss has benefited India as the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) successfully placed the 36 satellites in orbit.
Formidable Rival and Russian Folly
OneWeb had filed for bankruptcy following the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Bharti Group and the UK government bought the company to bring it out of bankruptcy. They further invested US$ one billion, along with outside investments. The first generation constellation consists of 648 satellites. With the latest launch, they have 462 satellites in orbit.
In March, Russia refused to launch the three dozen satellites until its demands were met. The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, sought assurances from OneWeb that the satellite constellation would not be used for defence applications. Further, OneWeb was asked to remove the UK government as a shareholder. This unfolded as the Soyuz 2.1b rocket with the satellites was at the launchpad.
Roscosmos has itself severed ties with long-standing partners citing sanctions. Another satellite internet constellation, Starlink, has provided Ukraine with internet access. This might also have been a factor in the Russian rationale for isolating Western influence on OneWeb.
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New Space for India
ISRO’s commercial arm, NewSpace India Limited (NSIL), had a complex task on its hand. The critical concern for the launch of the constellation was placement in orbit. A collision between a OneWeb and a Starlink satellite was already avoided in the nick of time. Further, the sheer payload brought ISRO to the drawing board to ensure success. And ISRO delivered a slew of firsts.
The first NSIL mission with OneWeb also marked the first commercial launch of Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (LVM3). It was the first multi-satellite mission with a six-ton payload, the heaviest for an Indian rocket.
LVM3 is a Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark 3 (GSLV Mk3), the most prominent Indian rocket yet. The name change reflects the destination orbit. OneWeb constellation operates in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). LVM3 boasts complete indigenised technology with a stellar track record. It has had four consecutive successes, including high-profile launches like the Chandrayaan-2 and human rating trials for the Gaganyaan programme.
ISRO and NSIL worked with OneWeb to capture the precise requirement and rework the LVM3. The cryogenic stage of the launch vehicle uniquely orients and re-orients itself in the orthogonal direction. This enabled precise launch with adequate gaps for collision avoidance. NSIL also ensured it fit into OneWeb’s timeline.
Building on the relationship with ISRO and NSIL, OneWeb announced the target to provide access to the internet through its constellations through the length and breadth of the country. If OneWeb is to be believed, they will be ready as soon as 2023. The company’s services are already available above 50 degrees North and South. The latest launch has brought the coverage closer to the Equator.
The largest investor in OneWeb, Sunil Bharti Mittal of the Bharti Group, was ecstatic to add an Indian element to OneWeb. Further, he thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ISRO for opening the domestic space sector for private participation.