Indian Launch Industry: OneWeb Provides a Big Hint

After a nine-month pause, OneWeb’s satellites were launched once again, this time on an Indian rocket–the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) MkIII (LVM3). From all accounts, the launch and subsequent satellite deployments were successful. That’s good news for OneWeb.

Charlie Brown is not a quitter.

If there were a Charlie Brown of low Earth orbiting (LEO) broadband satellite companies, OneWeb might have an orange shirt emblazoned with a huge zig-zag hanging in its closet. The company barely gets any respect compared with Starlink, or worse, the other theoretical up-and-coming-but-not-there-yet-eternally-in-development businesses such as Project Kuiper (Amazon) or Lightspeed (Telesat). Not helpful in gaining respect is OneWeb’s business model, which isn’t as direct-to-consumer as Starlink’s. Still, OneWeb has been busy growing its business, including in India (Bharti Global, an Indian company, owns a 42.2% stake in OneWeb). It’s just been going about its business in a boring way, which is probably good for its business (no one wants a drama queen at the helm).  

OneWeb has also had to overcome some rather significant challenges, one of its own making (the bankruptcy) and one not (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, resulting in the company’s lack of access to Russia’s rockets). The company survived bankruptcy, launching more satellites until the second challenge became apparent. At that point, it bit the bullet, moved away from launch provider Arianespace, and contracted launches with OneWeb’s competitor, SpaceX, and NewSpace India Limited (NSIL–the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)). While no one is likely to question the choice of SpaceX to help out with OneWeb’s situation, some may question choosing an Indian launch provider. The answer is: OneWeb didn’t have a choice if it was determined to get its entire constellation deployed promptly. 

Poor Pickings from the Pumpkin Patch

Obviously, Russia’s launch vehicles are off-limits. Aside from NSIL and SpaceX, few other options exist, especially if China’s offerings are dismissed. Arianespace doesn’t have Ariane 5’s available, and its Vega is much too small for OneWeb’s needs. Ariane 6’s first launch keeps getting pushed back. ULA is in a similar situation with its rockets. Northrop Grumman seems barely able to launch its Antares to fulfill its contractual obligations with NASA. Rocketlab’s Electron and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne are both too small. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Mitsubishi H-IIA 204 might do the job, but it might be too expensive (and slow). 

The lack of availability from other competitors provide one reason why OneWeb chose to go with India’s launch offerings. Although, India’s launch cadence is also relatively slow, averaging about four launches per year for the past few years (although the nation accomplished a heady seven launches in 2016). 

That slow cadence is why it’s surprising that NSIL/ISRO launched OneWeb’s satellites before SpaceX did. Of the world’s space launch service providers, it’s similar to OneWeb’s predicament as a Charlie Brown. The Indian government provided generally reliable launch capability that served indigenous interests while eventually providing commercial rideshare services. It managed to get a satellite to Mars, no small feat. So it’s no surprise that India has capable launch vehicles. 

Surprisingly Competitive?

However, it’s astonishing that NSIL/ISRO accomplished the launch using the LVM3. It’s not launched very often (less than once a year) and was first launched in December 2014. The ISRO launches its Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) more frequently. However, the PSLV’s mass launch capability is less than that of the LVM3 (which can carry up to 10 tons to LEO). While a PSLV might have been able to launch 7-10 OneWeb satellites, no PSLV could carry the 5,400 kilogram mass of 36 OneWeb satellites (not including Beyond Gravity’s (RUAG Space) dispenser tower). 

The LVM3 launch is the first of two that OneWeb has contracted with NSIL and might have cost OneWeb ~$60 million (~$121 million total–when it comes to rupees and crore, my math might be off). That launch price is slightly more than the estimated cost per launch from OneWeb’s “bulk buy” from Arianespace–~$55 million. A five million dollar increase for a relatively quick turnaround launch is not too bad. Especially considering the possible interface redesigns (and their implementations) required to fit the dispenser to the LVM3. The second launch is supposed to occur sometime in January 2023.

NSIL’s estimated launch price is attractive, as it is lower than SpaceX’s. While the LVM3 and Falcon 9 aren’t directly comparable, NSIL’s pricing pushes it as a SpaceX competitor. Despite the Falcon 9’s higher mass capability to LEO (22.8 tons), it’s rare that the company’s customers come close to using that entire capacity. Likely, OneWeb’s satellites will not take up the Falcon 9’s total capacity when it comes time to launch them. Likewise, they aren’t taking up the LVM3’s full capacity, instead launching the same number of satellites per launch as they did with the Soyuz.

More eye-opening is how quickly NSIL (with the ISRO) managed to get both LVM3s ready for launch. OneWeb found itself without Soyuz in early March 2022. A few weeks later, the company found replacements using SpaceX and NSIL. NSIL had seven months–from April through October–to get the LVM3 on the pad and ensure that it interfaced well with all the equipment necessary to launch and deploy OneWeb’s satellites. That is an unexpectedly fast pace, considering how often the LVM3 was launched in the past. NSIL and OneWeb also had to deal with cultural (company and country) differences and expectations during that time. It’s commendable that both appear to have done so for the first launch.

Getting All You Can While the Getting Is Good

What the pricing and pacing may mean for NSIL’s future launch activities is not clear. Its pricing to LEO using the LVM3 is competitive but useless if NSIL cannot deliver launches more frequently. The speed demonstrated to complete the first of the OneWeb satellite launches may have been because the ISRO had extra LVM3s warehoused (thanks to the pandemic) and ready for use. They may have more ready after the OneWeb launches. However, if NSIL and the ISRO manufactured and stacked the LVM3s from scratch within seven months, that would be a competitive capability, especially when prognosticating possible future satellite needs.

Consider that NSIL has a rocket that can launch a decent amount of mass to LEO. Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that the LVM3 is reliable, with five out of five successful LVM3 launches. That means NSIL already offers more than ULA, Blue Origin, and Arianespace does, through the mere fact that the LVM3 exists. In the meantime, companies like Amazon desperately seek a reasonable SpaceX alternative to launch their satellites. Amazon recently moved the launch of its two prototype Project Kuiper satellites from ABL to ULA. However, ULA’s Vulcan, which would be launching the Kuipersats, is still not completed. If NSIL has more LVM3s on tap, then perhaps Amazon approaching that company might be a safer bet than the massive launch contract binge on non-existent rockets it went on earlier in the year.

Clearly, NSIL will not be able to match SpaceX’s current launch cadence. But it doesn’t need to. It can already outrun other launch companies without rockets to launch and who will be slow in bringing their new systems online–if they ever do. Much depends on how serious the ISRO is with NSIL and how content both are as a Charlie Brown of the launch industry. OneWeb’s contracts should demonstrate to both that there is an opportunity to be seized. 

There may be some significant infighting, as ISRO could view NSIL as a competitor for launch resources. It may be that both are budget-constrained. Suppose NSIL can conduct launches at a higher frequency than the ISRO has historically, using both the PSLV and LVM3. In that case, it could give those hesitating about using SpaceX (and frustrated with delayed launch promises and reliance on hope) a realistic, existing option.

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