OneWeb, a satellite internet company partly owned by the British government, has canceled an upcoming satellite launch by a Russian rocket and suspended all future launches based on Russia, the company said. announced Thursday after publicizing tensions with Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.
Also on Thursday, Roscosmos announced it would stop selling rocket engines to American companies.
The moves, both in the aftermath of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, are aimed at further isolating the Russian space agency from its Western space partners and significantly limiting its private space activities. Russia. The loss of OneWeb as a reliable rocket supplier for launches also poses new challenges for the company as it has set a goal of completing its constellation of 648 satellites in orbit by the end of the year.
OneWeb was rescued from bankruptcy in 2020 by the UK government and other investors. As planned, it will launch 36 satellites on a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan on Friday. The company has sent about 400 satellites into orbit since 2019, each using Soyuz, a dark horse rocket that has been active since the days of the Cold War space race.
But on Wednesday, shortly after the Soyuz rover rolled ahead of launch, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s space chief, announced two conditions against sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine: The space agency will not launch a satellite mission unless Britain withdraws its multibillion-dollar stake in OneWeb and the company provides “assurance that its satellites will not be used for other purposes.” military.”
Mr. Rogozin also posted a video on Twitter shows Roscosmos employees on a pedestal next to the rocket, with British, American and Japanese flags emblazoned on the rocket’s exterior. “The launchers at Baikonur decided that without the flags of some countries, our rockets would look better,” said Rogozin, a former deputy prime minister who often makes bombastic comments on social media. .
The space agency’s ultimatum, has arrived just three days before the previously scheduled launch, spurred urgent discussions between British officials and OneWeb shareholders, who decided on Wednesday night to halt all launches. in the future from Baikonur, the spaceport in Kazakhstan where Russia conducts most of its launches. Mr. Rogozin hinted on Twitter that OneWeb’s decision would push the company into another bankruptcy proceeding.
Chris McLaughlin, OneWeb’s director of government affairs, dismissed the warning.
“This is an incredibly well-funded and debt-free company, backed by powerful international shareholders who made the decision,” he said in an interview.
Britain does not possess the ability to launch large ships into orbit. Mr. McLaughlin said OneWeb will look for alternative startup vendors in Japan, India and the United States.
“We’re always monitoring the launch environment, but this is something completely new and unprecedented,” Mr McLaughlin said.
The company was rescued from bankruptcy in 2020 by India’s Bharti Enterprises, OneWeb and UK’s largest shareholder, with a $500 million public investment in the satellite operator aimed at boosting the economy. British universe. With no rockets to launch, OneWeb’s goal to complete its large constellation faces severe disruption. It is competing with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation for broadband internet transmission to remote parts of the world.
OneWeb has faced pressure from British politicians to spy on energy companies in severing business ties with Russia. The company paid for the Russian mass launches through Arianespace, the French rocket company, and has six more missions under the contract – a launch lineup that could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In the coming days, OneWeb is set to enter negotiations with Arianespace to determine how, if possible, to obtain funds for the suspended Soyuz missions, according to an unnamed OneWeb official to discuss the business efforts. sensitive business for which he is not authorized. to reveal. The official added that OneWeb executives are still unclear when or how the 36 satellites currently in Russia for Friday’s aborted mission will leave the rocket, or where the satellites will be. that will be hosted while OneWeb searches for another launcher provider.
“There is no quick fix for this problem,” said Caleb Henry, a satellite industry analyst at Quilty Analytics. “They have the money to find new product launches, it’s just a huge inconvenience to do so.”
Mr. Henry added that launch contracts of this size are usually signed two years in advance.
“OneWeb has predicted to complete their constellation in August, so that won’t be possible with a new launch provider,” he said.
Russia’s move into the business of one of the space agency’s largest commercial customers is perhaps the best example to date of how the war in Ukraine has spilled over into space, an area in which the country is in the process. decades have found cooperation with countries that used to be. Cold War enemies.
Last week, Roscosmos pulled more than 80 Russian personnel from French Guiana, where the European Space Agency has its sole launch site and commercial Soyuz missions. The ESA then said that a joint robotics mission to Mars by the agency and Russia, scheduled to launch later this year, is now “very unlikely” to get underway on time. And on Thursday, Roscosmos said it would stop collaborating with Germany on joint space station research projects.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Key things to know
A Ukrainian city has fallen. The Russian army gained control of Kherson, the first city to be overtaken during the war. The Kherson pass was significant because it allowed the Russians to gain more control of Ukraine’s southern coast and to advance west of Odessa.
Victoria Samson, a space policy analyst at the Secure World Foundation, said with the barrage of Western sanctions over the invasion, Roscosmos’ isolation from its Western counterparts seemed inevitable. from.
“It is not encouraging for the Russian space agency to isolate itself,” she said. “It is possible that this is Russia promoting the death of connections that can happen at any time. But now it is being done on their terms. “
NASA, which jointly manages the International Space Station with Roscosmos, said it intends to continue working with its Russian partners. The two partners negotiated an agreement to launch Russian cosmonauts on Crew Dragon, a SpaceX vehicle that carries NASA astronauts.
In addition to cooperating with NASA, on Thursday, Russia said it would stop selling rocket engines to American companies.
“In a situation like this, we cannot provide the United States with the best rocket engines in the world,” Rogozin said on Russian state television. “Let them fly on something else, their brooms, I don’t know what.”
The freeze could have the most profound effect on Northrop Grumman, which uses Russian-made engines for its Antares launch vehicle to carry cargo to the space station for NASA. SpaceX also provides this service for the space station, as well as spacecraft launched by Japan and Russia.
In a more symbolic move, Mr. Rogozin said Russia would not support the use of another Russian engine that was purchased and used by the United Launch Alliance for the Atlas 5, one of the most frequent US rockets. most used.
ULA CEO Tory Bruno downplayed the impact of the loss of technical aid from Russia, saying, “We can do without if necessary.”