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Russia places extraordinary demands on OneWeb prior to satellite launch

A Soyuz rocket launches in 2020 carrying nearly three dozen OneWeb satellites into orbit.
Enlarge / A Soyuz rocket launches in 2020 carrying nearly three dozen OneWeb satellites into orbit.


Russia has taken the extraordinary step of placing multiple demands on OneWeb and its government ownership prior to a planned launch of satellites Friday aboard a Soyuz rocket.

The mission, to loft 34 broadband communications satellites into orbit, was to be the 14th launch of OneWeb satellites. The company presently has 428 satellites in orbit, out of a planned total of 648 for its initial constellation. OneWeb had hoped to begin commercial service around the world later this year.

The vast majority of those satellites have launched on Russian Soyuz rockets, one of the few boosters in the world with spare lift capacity for a megaconstellation at this time. Another six Soyuz launches were scheduled for later this year to complete the OneWeb constellation.

But those plans were thrown into question by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week. OneWeb, which is jointly owned by the United Kingdom government and an Indian multinational company, has not offered any public comments since the invasion.

However, as Western companies have broken off ties with Russian interests, some UK members of parliament have said it would be inappropriate for OneWeb to continue launching on Russian rockets. On Tuesday, the UK government issued a statement, saying in part, “It is right for questions to be raised about future space cooperation with Russia following the illegal invasion of Ukraine.” The government was continuing to consider its next steps.

Big demands

All the while, Russia’s main space corporation, Roscosmos, had been preparing the Soyuz rocket for launch, even rolling it out to the launch pad this week with the 34 satellites bundled into the payload fairing at its tip. But on Wednesday the chief of Russia’s space program, Dmitry Rogozin, issued two demands before acceding to the launch. One, he said, OneWeb must guarantee that its satellites will not be used for military purposes. And two, the UK government must give up its ownership of OneWeb.

These extraordinary demands would seem to be non-starters. OneWeb has already pitched national defense agencies, including the United Kingdom, on using OneWeb satellites to facilitate rich networks of data for enhanced decision-making during military activities. And it is virtually impossible to see the UK government agreeing to Russian demands about what it does, and does not, own.

Prior to the Russian demands, it had been thought that OneWeb would probably press ahead with this launch—despite the public blowback—because it was better to launch these satellites than let them fall into Russian hands. This, however, was likely to have been the last OneWeb launch on a Russian rocket for some time. Now, the launch is uncertain to happen.

The actions taken by Rogozin will have wide-ranging effects. In the near term it is certain to end all Western demand for Russian launch and space services. Already there have been significant breakages in the relationship between Russia’s space program and the West, including the delay of the ExoMars collaboration between Roscosmos and the European Space Agency. Only the venerable International Space Station partnership remains, which NASA and Roscosmos remain committed to at this time. But even this strong bond seems more tenuous in light of this week’s tumultuous events.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, OneWeb has not made any public comments, either on social media or its website or to journalists about the present situation. Undoubtedly it is in deep conversations with its ownership about how to manage things. If the company must move off Soyuz launches there are very few options for getting its satellites into space.

Few options

Europe has no spare launch capacity, with all of its remaining Ariane 5 launches spoken for, and the Ariane 6 rocket is probably at least two years away from having operational capacity. Last October OneWeb and India’s space program, ISRO, reached an agreement to use Indian rockets for future satellite launches. But these rockets have not demonstrated a high launch cadence since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is not clear whether India’s PSLV or GSLV Mk. III vehicles will have the capacity to launch several batches of OneWeb satellites in the next 12 to 24 months.

That probably only leaves SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket as a viable option. The problem with this, of course, is that SpaceX has its own satellite Internet network, Starlink. And while SpaceX may agree to launch a competitor’s satellites, the price would not be cheap. Nor would OneWeb likely want to enrich the company trying to better its own satellite network.

OneWeb was founded to bring the world closer together, but that is hard to do when the world is falling apart.

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