UK-backed OneWeb suspends Russian satellite launches

The UK-backed satellite internet company OneWeb has suspended all future launches from Russia’s cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, as the invasion of Ukraine shatters the decades-long collaboration between Moscow and the west in space.

OneWeb’s board, which includes representatives of shareholders including the UK government, India’s Bharti Global, SoftBank and Eutelsat, took the decision late on Wednesday night, it said in a Twitter message.

The move could cost the company roughly $ 300mn, including the cost of the satellites now stranded in Kazakhstan, according to people familiar with the matter, and throws into jeopardy OneWeb’s plan to roll out a global service by the end of this year.

It had become apparent over the past 48 hours that the launch of the next 36 satellites, scheduled for Friday evening, was unlikely to go ahead.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency, on Wednesday delivered an ultimatum to the UK government: Britain had two days to sell its 17.5 per cent stake in OneWeb and guarantee the network would not be used for military purposes or the Kremlin would abort the launch of Russian Soyuz rockets carrying OneWeb satellites.

After the UK rejected the demands, Rogozin wrote on Twitter: “OK. I give you two days to think. There will be no guarantees of non-military use of the system – there will be no system. ”

OneWeb’s launch was the test case for whether space collaboration between Russia and the west, built up over more than 30 years, could withstand the fallout from the invasion.

“Even during the [Alexander] Litvinenko crisis, when relations between Russia and the UK were at rock bottom, for example, there was still collaboration going on in space, ”said Katherine Courtney, former head of the UK Space Agency and chair of the Global Network on Sustainability in Space.

In a Twitter message on Thursday, Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, said: “The Russian space program against the backdrop of sanctions will be adjusted, the priority will be the creation of satellites in the interests of defense.”

As relations deteriorate, OneWeb faces the most immediate fallout. Rescued from bankruptcy by the UK government and the Bharti Global telecommunications company in 2020 in a controversial $ 1bn buyout, the group is racing against Elon Musk’s Starlink network to roll out a global internet service.

Seventy per cent of OneWeb’s network is already in orbit but it was counting on launching about 200 more satellites this year to complete a revenue-generating constellation of 658 satellites. This would fund the development and rollout of a second generation of spacecraft.

“If the entry into service is pushed back, the plans for the launch of its second-generation satellite will be pushed back,” according to one person familiar with the matter. “It’s a headache, there’s no question about it.”

The company had prepared for six launches this year to complete its network. It booked the launches through Europe’s launch group Arianespace, which for the past decade has partnered with Roscosmos to use its Soyuz rockets for medium lift capacity.

OneWeb will also have to find and pay for alternative launch sites. Most launchers are booked years in advance, and using different rockets involves some costly redesign. The UK government is expected to hold discussions with US counterparts to explore possible options.

Industry experts say the rupture with Russia also has consequences for scientific and institutional missions. This week, Roscosmos pulled its engineers and technicians from the European spaceport in French Guiana, where Soyuz rockets also operate. As a result, two EU Galileo navigation satellites cannot launch as planned in April.

Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for Space, insisted the decision had “no consequences on the continuity and quality of the Galileo and Copernicus [Earth observation] services ”.

The European Space Agency has also warned that its € 1.68bn ExoMars mission to land a life-seeking rover on Mars in collaboration with Russia is “very unlikely” to launch as planned on a Russian Proton rocket in September.

The ExoMars launch has already been delayed from 2020 for technical reasons. If it cannot go ahead this year, it will have to be postponed at least until 2024 when Earth and Mars will next be in the correct planetary alignment, and the mission will require expensive re-engineering.

Many in the industry are also concerned that an end to collaboration will make it harder to hammer out an international agreement on regulations to govern the responsible use of space. Since 2019, the number of working satellites in orbit has surged 50 per cent, sparking concerns that the growing volume of space debris could lead to potentially catastrophic collisions.

Russia, which drew global condemnation late last year when it blew up a defunct satellite in a military test, has long been reluctant to participate in efforts led by the UN to establish rules. “My biggest concern is that the political response to sanctions will make them even more isolationist in their attitudes,” Courtney said.

Some in the private sector worry that the withdrawal of Soyuz rockets could lead to delays and higher costs, particularly in Europe where Arianespace has relied on Russia for medium lift vehicles.

“There has always been a waiting list for launch,” said Ralph Dinsley, founder and chief executive of NORSS, the space surveillance and tracking company.

BryceTech, a space analytics company, estimates that Russia’s Soyuz rocket accounted for roughly 60 per cent of Arianespace contracted launches last year. However, the vast majority of those were for OneWeb, said Phil Smith, an analyst at BryceTech.

The impact for Arianespace should be relatively limited, he added, given that the company was already preparing to reduce its dependence on Russian rockets. “The upcoming Ariane 6 and Vega C rockets are coming online this year. [They] will fill that gap. This just accelerates that process, ”Smith said.

The highest-profile and longest-standing collaboration between Russia and the west is the $ 150bn International Space Station, currently crewed by four Americans, two Russians and a German. With astronauts and cosmonauts working together, Roscosmos and the US space agency Nasa have no option – at least in the short term – but to continue running the ISS together.

Russia indicated last year that it planned to withdraw from the ISS in 2025.

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