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OneWeb amps up the satellite space race with its second launch

The competitor to Elon Musk's Starlink aims to start offering broadband services from orbit later this year.

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A Soyuz rocket prepares to launch 34 OneWeb satellites from Kazakhstan.

OneWeb

2020 looks to be the year of the satellite constellation, led by SpaceX and its plan for a massive fleet of broadband satellites. On Thursday, another billionaire-backed effort worked to keep pace, when OneWeb launched a second batch of its own space routers to low-Earth orbit.

The company counts Virgin founder Richard Branson among its initial investors, though OneWeb found itself sued by Branson's Virgin Orbit last year when OneWeb canceled most of the launches it had ordered from burgeoning commercial launch provider Virgin. 

Instead, OneWeb forged ahead with its second launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with 34 broadband satellites loaded on to a Russian Soyuz rocket. The launch went off as planned just after 1:30 p.m. PT on Thursday.

The first phase of OneWeb's project calls for placing 648 satellites in a near-polar orbit with the goal of beginning commercial services in the Arctic, with customer demonstrations by the end of this year. 

According to a press release, OneWeb aims "to provide full commercial global services for sectors such as maritime, aviation, government and enterprise in 2021."

Each OneWeb satellite is roughly the size of a refrigerator and will climb to an altitude of 746 miles (1,200 kilometers). The service will be racing to start operations as SpaceX also ramps up launches of its Starlink satellites. SpaceX is aiming to have more than 1,600 of its own satellites in the sky this year -- all at a lower altitude than where OneWeb will operate initially -- with hopes of starting up its services for a limited number of customers as well.

This rapid increase in satellites around the Earth has raised concerns from astronomers who've seen their observations of the universe disrupted over the past year by trains of highly reflective Starlink satellites. UFO sightings are also up thanks to the increase in orbital traffic.  At a recent American Astronomical Society meeting in Hawaii, leaders from the astronomical community said they've been in discussions with both OneWeb and SpaceX to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the launches continue. The third OneWeb launch is set to take place sometime in the coming weeks. 

Originally published Feb. 6, 10:08 a.m. PT.
Update, 2:45 p.m.: Recasts story to note successful launch.