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Virgin Galactic, Arianespace land 60 launch contracts for OneWeb

Irene Klotz, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jun 26, 2015, 1:22 UTC

Sen—Virgin Galactic has signed up its first customer for launch services aboard its still-in-development LauncherOne rocket, with a contract for up to 139 flights for OneWeb.

“It’s great customer, and one that is super ambitious as well,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides told Sen.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but Whitesides said the bulk buy allowed for good terms for OneWeb, a startup that plans to operate a 648-member network of small satellites that can beam broadband Internet and mobile communications to all parts of the globe.

LauncherOne is an air-launched, one-time-use rocket that rides aboard the same WhiteKnightTwo carrier jet built for Virgin Galactic’s passenger SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The jet releases the rocket at an altitude of about 50,000 feet. LauncherOne ignites its engine and blasts off toward orbit.

Virgin Galactic has said that rides will cost less than $10 million. The rocket can handle up to three OneWeb satellites at a time.

The spacecraft, which will be built by Airbus, will weigh less than 330 pounds each.

Virgin Galactic’s contract with OneWeb calls for 39 LauncherOne missions, with options for another 100 flights.

OneWeb also is buying 21 rides on Soyuz rockets from Arianespace, which flies the Russian-made boosters from the European Space Agency’s launch site in French New Guinea. Up to 36 OneWeb satellites can fly on a single Soyuz rocket.

Airbus is designing and building an initial 900 satellites for OneWeb. Launches are expected to begin in 2017, with the bulk reaching orbit in 2018 and 2019.

OneWeb also said it has raised $500 million from a group of companies including Virgin Galactic’s parent company, Virgin Group, Airbus, India’s Bharti Enterprises, chipmaker Qualcomm, Hughes Network Systems, Intelsat, The Coca-Cola Co., and Mexico’s Totalplay.

“We are committed to solving one of the world's biggest problems—enabling affordable broadband Internet access for everyone. We are excited about the next phase, which will involve working with countries, telecom operators and aid organizations to help them realize their goals of open and ubiquitous access,” OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said in a statement.

Whitesides said the LauncherOne missions for OneWeb will fly out of Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.

“I think they will be some of our earliest flights,” he said.