OneWeb suspends all satellite launches from Russian-run spaceport
Image credit: OneWeb
A satellite launch by OneWeb, the communications firm with UK government backing, will now not go ahead as planned this week after the company’s board suspended its use of a Russian-operated spaceport.
OneWeb was due to launch 36 broadband satellites on Friday (4 March) in Kazakhstan, in an operation that would have used Russian Soyuz rockets and have been overseen by the Russian space agency.
Following political pressure after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, the board of the London-based company voted to “suspend all launches” from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in a move welcomed by the UK government, which is a major shareholder.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng tweeted: “The UK government supports OneWeb’s decision. In light of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we are reviewing our participation in all further projects involving Russian collaboration.”
Darren Jones, Labour chairman of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, had written to ministers this week to question whether the collaboration between a company with UK government investment and Russia should be deemed “inappropriate” given Moscow’s attack on its independent neighbour, Ukraine.
The UK took a £400m share in the failed digital firm to rescue it from bankruptcy in July 2020, as part of a consortium with India’s Bharti Global, following a bidding war.
The company was originally trying to provide satellite internet worldwide with a constellation of up to 648 satellites. However, the firm only managed to launch 74 of its low-Earth orbit satellites before going bust as it failed to secure funding to continue the project.
The UK government bought its stake in OneWeb in an effort to revitalise the domestic space sector after the UK was obliged to leave the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation project on account of Brexit.
The investment allowed OneWeb to continue its role in the race to beam internet access across the globe from satellites in low-Earth orbit.
As well as domestic pressure on the company, demands had also been exerted on OneWeb and the UK government by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, before the launch at the Moscow-run Baikonur launchpad.
On Wednesday, agency chief Dmitry Rogozin said it wanted “guarantees” the satellites would not be used by Western military and called for the “removal of the British government from the list of shareholders”, according to press agency Interfax.
Rogozin also told the Rossiya 24 television channel that Russia would “keep the money” paid by OneWeb in the event the launch was cancelled, citing the “force majeure created by the aggressive policy of the West and the anti-Russian sanctions”.
Kwarteng responded by saying the UK would not be selling its OneWeb share, with the company’s board voting on Thursday morning to suspend Friday’s launch.
Asked about the situation on Wednesday, Downing Street said it was “right” that questions were being raised about “space co-operation” with Moscow and that it had been “carefully monitoring” the OneWeb launch before its subsequent cancellation.
As of last month, OneWeb had 428 satellites in orbit, with another third of its low-Earth orbit satellite fleet still to be readied as part of its mission to provide “high-speed, low-latency global connectivity”.
The BBC reported that the firm will now work with its French partner Arianespace to find alternative rocket rides, following the board’s decision.
In September 2021, OneWeb successfully launched an additional 34 satellites into its constellation from the Baikonur Cosmodrome – possibly the last from that site, at least for the foreseeable future.
Earlier this week, the repercussions of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine means that the launch of a joint Europe-Russian mission to Mars – planned for later this year – is now “very unlikely” due to sanctions imposed, the European Space Agency (ESA) said.
The space agency said that after a meeting of officials from its 22 member states, it was assessing the consequences of sanctions for its cooperation with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency.
Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.