Satellite start up OneWeb has filed for bankruptcy protection in the US just days after its latest launch bringing the total number of its satellites in orbit to 74.

The company, which had been building a constellation of satellites to enable greater connectivity across the globe, has blamed the global COVID-19 pandemic for its collapse. It said the financial impact and market turbulence caused by the outbreak had hampered to continue negotiations which would help secure further investment.

OneWeb planned to provide high-bandwidth, low-latency internet connections to any point on Earth, bar Antarctica by 2021. The company had raised £2.6bn to implement the project but space industry experts had predicted that double the sum would be needed to complete the system.

Early supporters of the project included Airbus, Intelsat, Bharti Enterprises, Coca Cola, Group Salinas, Hughes Network Systems, and Virgin Group. Softbank became a major investor.

Bankruptcy filing comes just days after second satellite launch

OneWeb Satellites – a joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus – opened a high-volume, high-speed satellite production facility in Merrit Island, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center in July. The company had credited the success of its two recent launches in 2020 to the production facility.

FINN reported the launch of OneWebs 74th satellite on March 21, the second launch of a constellation of satellites which was planned to total at least 648 spacecraft. The launch was the company’s second 34-satellite launch within six weeks. According to the bankruptcy court filing, OneWeb’s largest unsecured creditor is rocket operator Arianespace, which has been using Soyuz vehicles to launch the company’s satellites. ArianeSpace is owed $238m.

OneWeb released a statement and said it intended to use Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings to pursue a sale to maximise the value of the company. CEO Adrian Steckel said: “OneWeb has been building a truly global communications network to provide high-speed low latency broadband everywhere. Our current situation is a consequence of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. We remain convinced of the social and economic value of our mission to connect everyone everywhere.”

Remaining employees will manage constellation

Steckel added: “Today is a difficult day for us at OneWeb. So many people have dedicated so much energy, effort, and passion to this company and our mission. Our hope is that this process will allow us to carve a path forward that leads to the completion of our mission, building on the years of effort and the billions of invested capital. It is with a very heavy heart that we have been forced to reduce our workforce and enter the Chapter 11 process while the Company’s remaining employees are focused on responsibly managing our nascent constellation and working with the Court and investors.”

OneWeb is headquartered in London, with offices in McLean, Virginia and Mountain View, California. As well as the successful launch of the 74 satellites, OneWeb has valuable radio spectrum rights and has built around half of the 44 ground stations needed to operate its constellation. OneWeb has control rooms in London and Virginia to monitor and command the satellites. It is hoped that progress with this infrastructure will enable the company to be bought out by a new owner.

UK government is responsible for satellites if no buyer found

If no buyer for OneWeb or its assets can be found, the UK government is ultimately responsible for the 74 spacecraft in orbit. As the licensing state, it will carry the liability if these satellites are involved in a collision‘

Amazon or Facebook have both announced intentions to launch their own satellite broadband services and either could be logical potential buyers. OneWeb’s filing for bankruptcy makes SpaceX the only nascent low-earth orbit broadband constellation actively growing in size. Founder Elon Musk’s system is aiming to get over 1,000 satellites into space by the end of the year.